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Bird Flu in America: fiction, not fact

May 10, 2006 By Jacqueline Ruttimann This article courtesy of Nature News.

Movie about a future pandemic in the United States has ruffled some feathers.

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Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America Written by Ron McGee and directed by Richard Pearce ABC Worldwide release on May 9, 2006

Bird flu has yet to hit the United States, but TV producers, with their minds on ratings, are already speculating about what would happen should the avian influenza virus mutate to a form that can be passed from human to human.

On 9 May, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired the movie entitled Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, which portrays the deadly consequences of one businessman's trip to Hong Kong, where he picks up a mutated form of the virus from a factory worker and brings it back home to the United States.

What follows is a nightmare of some 20 million deaths worldwide, accompanied by hoarding of vaccines, food shortages and economic disaster. And this, the film hints, is only the beginning. At the end, a second wave of disease is only just starting in Angola: one that spreads and kills people even faster. And a flock of geese fly away from a pile of bloody bodies, presumably on their way to spread death and destruction even further afield.

To the director's credit, the movie does start off with a responsible disclaimer that "this film is a fictional examination of the question 'what if'". But that hasn't calmed the fears of several experts who, having seen the film, think it may give the wrong impression.

John Barry, historian and author of a bestselling book on the real 1918 pandemic (The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History) served as consultant to the film, although he says not all of his ideas were incorporated. "The ending, I think, is more than simply overdone," he said in a discussion about the film with the public-policy group Trust for America's Health. But, he adds, "one benefit of this movie is that it raises people's awareness".

This is surely a good thing. But what several experts balk at is the extreme calamity in the film, and some technical errors in showing how the disease might spread.

Sneezes and sniffles

During the American businessman's return flight home, the 'Typhoid Mary' character wipes his mouth on a napkin, which is picked up by a bartender who then places a virus-laced olive into the martini of another passenger.

Michael Osterholm, associate director of the US Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense, notes that the main pathway of transmission of a pandemic virus will probably be coughing and sneezing, rather than this sort of hand-to-hand transmission, making it less likely to spread quite so easily.

There are a few other scientific glitches in the film, including doctors hanging about in wards wearing only flimsy paper masks. But on the whole, the devil isn't in the details, but in the overall message, said experts in the Trust for America's Health discussion.

"It will lead people to believe that we have lost control of the situation," said Osterholm. "We know that a pandemic could be serious, but we also know that we will get through a pandemic." Osterholm wasn't consulted during the movie's making, but was shown a version for comment before it was aired. He related his concerns to the movie makers, he says, although by then the film was already finished.

Bad to worse

In the film, one young girl manages to evade the virus by flipping the straw around in her drink after having shared it with her sickly father (caution: this is not a strategy recommended by doctors for avoiding bird flu). But for most others, things don't go so well.

A self-imposed quarantine by the Virginia governor ends up killing his own son, who is a diabetic and runs out of life-saving insulin. Food starts to be in short supply, sending the price of a symbolic bag of coffee skyrocketting to US$19. The French succeed in developing a vaccine for the virus but the country isn't willing to share it with the rest of the world; it only reconsiders after being threatened by economic sanctions. Patients throw-up blood on their doctors. And dumper trucks haul American bodies into landfills, where they are covered up by bulldozers.

The ending, says Osterholm, leads one to believe that the avian flu is "going to wipe out the world". He doesn't think that's a likely outcome.

It seems probable that there would be some panic, confusion and mistakes should a pandemic form of flu hit the United States: their track record with bird viruses is not entirely reassuring (see ' State's flu response raises concern'). But I'd say this film surely steps over the line of a reasonable scenario. Good thing it is flagged as fiction; hopefully people will take it as such.

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