Roll up your sleeve, please
September 27, 2011
Along with the leaves changing, the sweet smell of ripening apples in the air and kids returning to school, fall has become flu shot season. With heightened awareness of how easily viral infections like flu can spread in crowded places, local senior centers vaccinate the vulnerable, health care workers are required to get the shots, and employers are offering flu shot clinics to busy workplaces. This year the vaccinations are supposed to protect against a range of flu strains, from H1N1 to swine flu, which is trending upward in the South.
Following the popularity of the movie Contagion, it's easy to imagine more people than usual lining up for flu shots. (Let's hope that doesn't lead to another shortage of vaccines, as happened several times in recent years.) The plot of the film follows doctors and scientists faced with an outbreak of a deadly virus, their own family members falling victim.
This interactive map shows which outbreaks are trending, and offers links to more information.
While the film is a fictionalized account of such an outbreak, its underpinning is based in the sterile reality of actual laboratories. A professor of epidemiology who helped in China during the 2003 SARS pandemic was a consultant on the film, and he vouched for the thread of realism portrayed, pointing out the shortcomings of the current system of virus-fighting. Among the dangerous gaps in our ability to combat such disease is the link between creating a vaccine and getting it manufactured quickly. He says he hopes the film encourages a new wave of interest in the field of epidemiology, which is underfunded.
Another realistic thread in Contagion is the animal-human contact that allows the disease to spread, which is distressingly simple. In fact, the scenario has played out very similarly in pandemics in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s.
Perhaps hand washing and coughing into your sleeve isn't enough?