CLAS Blog

By Jeremy Teitelbaum

Insights on topics in the liberal arts and sciences and higher education, with periodic outbreaks of humor and satire. Jeremy Teitelbaum is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Contagion: We’re living it now

Over the weekend I had the chance to see the new thriller Contagion, which tells of a worldwide outbreak of a new, highly infectious, lethal virus.  The movie takes a cool, almost documentary approach to the story, showing the devastation caused by the virus almost in passing.  While I often leave the theater after watching  pseudo-scientific movie thrillers reviewing all of the silliness one typically finds in the genre, this movie was an exception — this one, like all good science fiction, left me thinking.   What struck me is that we’re living the movie right now.

At some point in the middle of the last century a virus crossed the ape/human boundary and began to infect humans.  It has spread worldwide.  The virus is highly infectious, passed by sexual contact or blood contamination, and causes the death by opportunistic infections or cancers of the overwhelming number of untreated individuals.  Roughly 30 million people have the virus and two million die of it each year.  Something like 25 million people have died from the disease since the epidemic began.  Though there is a reasonably effective, if extremely expensive, management protocol, there is no cure and no vaccine.  I’m speaking, of course, about HIV/AIDS.

As the HIV/AIDS epidemic was blossoming in the United States,  critical time to control it was lost because the disease was dismissed as  caused by “bad behavior.”  In the past few weeks, judgements about the association between disease and “bad behavior” — meaning sex — still put public health at risk, as the current controversy over the HPV vaccine shows.

In contrast, Contagion focuses on the experience of an upper middle class, white family in Minnesota who, through very bad luck, are hit hard by the disease caused by Contagion’s fictitious MEV-1 virus.  The subtext of the movie is that even regular people (in Minnesota, no less) are vulnerable to rogue viruses.  Not surprisingly, the government is quick to mobilize when suburban white people get sick.

While the experience of a Minnesota family is considered in detail, Contagion barely engages with the disaster its MEV-1 virus must have caused in Hong Kong and rural China.  That’s consistent with real-life, too: the catastrophic impact of HIV/AIDS in poorer countries, especially in Africa, is still mostly invisible to us.

There was one aspect of the movie that I did find satisfying — and consistent with the lessons of HIV/AIDS.  The heroes of the movie are government agencies, especially CDC and the World Health Organization, with key help from academic scientists.  Without such agencies we truly would be helpless in the face of new (or even old!) infectious diseases.  And without the massive societal investment in basic research through the NIH and the NSF, we would be at a far more primitive state in our ability to understand, track, and sometimes even treat new pathogens.

The truth of HIV/AIDS is scarier than the fiction presented in Contagion.  The movie elevates the suffering of “people like us” while overlooking the people who suffer the greatest devastation from disease — poor people, especially in the developing world.  But, after all, it’s only a movie, and it entertained me for a couple of hours and left me thinking for a couple of days.  Go see it, but don’t forget about the AIDS epidemic while you’re watching it.