It’s probably no accident a blockbuster disaster movie called Contagion hit screens just before the start of flu season. But a real-life, out-of-control pandemic is not out of the realm of possibility.
“Contagion’s” culprit is modeled after severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the virus that caused a worldwide panic in 2003 but fizzled out after causing few deaths. In the movie, the deadly virus travels quickly and insidiously throughout the globe, courtesy of high-speed air travel. Unlike the SARS dud, however, the Contagion virus’ target is more deadly.
“Viruses can attack the central nervous system,” says Debra Spicehandler, MD, an infectious diseases specialist at Northern Westchester Hospital.
While the celluloid assertion is believable, it’s still just a movie, and Hollywood’s hot spotlight does not a pandemic make. The question – regardless of whether you’ve seen the movie – is: could it really happen? The answer is yes.
“Clearly if you are not aware of an outbreak,” says Spicehandler, “You cannot take proper precautions to prevent spread and to protect yourself from contracting the virus.”
Spicehandler says it is difficult for people to protect themselves from potential viral outbreaks, the most common of which is the flu. This is why, she says, hospital emergency rooms have adopted policies “that if you present with a cough or unexplained rash, proper protective gear is used until it can be established whether or not you are contagious.”
To the layperson who might not have a haz-mat suit lying around the house, even remedial precautions are helpful in thwarting viruses, which can be spread through contact with infected patients.
“Good hand hygiene is the best line of defense in contracting illnesses from others,” says Spicehandler. This includes thorough hand washing, as well as the use of antiseptic hand lotions. But “Contagion” is as much about virology as it is about public health.
Lest you think you’re maniacally washing hands and fretting over the possibility of a contamination, you are not alone.
“Most hospitals have readiness plans as far as how to handle a potential pandemic, and have instituted emergency preparedness protocols," Spicehandler says. “Public health and epidemiological surveillance are the key to informing health care practitioners about potential outbreaks in their community or surrounding communities. New York State has established an alert system to all hospitals and most infectious disease physicians to alert them of potentially contagious outbreaks either in their area or in the state.”
Her advice for staying healthy this winter can be summed up in two words: “flu shot.” That, or you can hole up in your house, avoid the movie theater and wait until “Contagion” is released on DVD. Why expose yourself to germs if you don’t have to?