Friday, September 9, 2011

Contagion: The cough heard round the world

It all started with what seemed like a simple cold. The new movie “Contagion” vividly portrays how society could unravel in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Many health officials say a major pandemic in real life is more a matter of when, not if. We’ve been lucky in recent years, says Emory physician Phyllis Kozarsky, an infectious disease expert who specializes in travel medicine.

The H5N1 virus, more commonly known as bird flu, is one recent scare. The virus kills about 60 percent of infected people. “It’s a very serious disease, and we hope it doesn’t obtain the ability to be easily transmitted,” Kozarsky says.

Related: Wired blogger Maryn McKenna separates fact from fiction in "Contagion."

H5N1 is just one of many diseases on the radar of health officials concerned with pandemics. A critical aspect of controlling an outbreak will be getting out accurate information, making social media both a potential asset and nightmare.

Bursting media's bubble: Jude Law portrays a social media maverick in San Francisco who is obsessed with both freedom of information and conspiracy theories. Warner Brothers photo.

In “Contagion,” Jude Law plays crazed blogger Alan Krumwiede. The paranoid character is driven by conspiracy theories, and yet he uncovers some facts that journalists from traditional media miss, scooping them all. He later leverages his wide Internet following to hawk a "cure" for the disease and tell people not to take a government-made vaccine.

Elliot Gould plays a scientist who also goes a bit rogue, in his rush to isolate the virus. He brushes off Krumwiede with the line: “Blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.”

Law told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steven Rea that he researched the blogosphere to prepare for his role:

"I don't want to list anyone in particular," he says, asked to cite a couple of influential bloggers. "I'd rather people see it and draw on their own imagination, but yeah, I certainly looked at an awful lot of blogs, and bloggers who have been interviewed and who have made a bit of a name for themselves, who have become personalities. ... I drew on a few and tried to create someone that seemed to fit that particular persona.

"And yet, what was most exciting was that [director Steven Soderbergh] didn't want to judge him, he didn't want him to necessarily be a bad guy. ... Maybe this guy was correct all along, who knows?"

Some of the scenes from “Contagion” were shot around the Emory campus and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Click here to watch some of the videos of the crew and cast in action.

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