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Sep 14th, 2011 Headlines

The movie “Contagion, order ” which earned more than 22 million dollars at the box office last weekend, is about a virus that quickly spreads and kills millions of people. Is this sort of thing pure fantasy, or something that could potentially happen?

The filmmakers of “Contagion” definitely did their homework. They hired a professor of epidemiology, neurology and pathology from Columbia University to work on the movie.  He says the virus in the film is based on the real Nipah virus, which jumped from bats to pigs to humans. It causes 100 deaths in Malaysia in the 1990′s before it was contained by quarantine. The same doctor was in Beijing during the SARS outbreak of 2003 and saw the deserted streets and food shortages depicted in the movie.

The movie definitely makes people wonder: can something like this happen in real life? The Colombian University expert believes so for several reasons. First, our risk of coming into contact with new germs is greater due to more international travel and the globalization of food production.  As we expand and build in areas that used to be inhabited by wildlife, that wildlife is being displaced and is more likely to come into contact with domesticated animals.  In fact, he says more than ¾ of all new infectious diseases originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans

There are a few terms to understand when talking about infectious diseases. A disease outbreak happens when a disease occurs in greater numbers than expected in a community or region, or during a season.

An epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people. In 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic took the lives of nearly 800 people worldwide.

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak. HIV is an example of one of the most destructive global pandemics in history. Over the years, we’ve also seen influenza pandemics, when there is a new strain of influenza to which we have little to no immunity. Well-known incidents were the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918 that killed 40-50 million people, and the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009.

There is no foolproof method to stop the spread of an outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic.  Depending on the organism, the method of spread, and the numbers of people involved, health officials can use quarantine to keep people who are sick away from others who are not. It is important to educate people on what measures to do to prevent further spread like hand-washing, staying home if you’re sick, taking medications if they are available to shorten the course of illness, and then a pull court press to develop a vaccine if none is available.  Making vaccines can be time consuming but techniques are getting faster than they were in years past.

So, what are simple things people can do to prevent getting sick? Wash your hands often with soap and water. If these are not available, use an alcohol-based hand cleaner or gel sanitizer. If you are using a gel, rub your hands until they become dry. Avoid touching your mouth, nose, or eyes with your hands unless you’ve just washed your hands. When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue. Afterwards, throw the tissue in the trash. Wash your hands, as well. Avoid crowded places as much as you can and stay home if you show signs of illness.  Keep up with the news, where you’re likely to get useful information from public health officials about what to do.

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