Dr. Randy Martin: There is a popular movie out right now, Contagion, that takes a look at what would happen if a highly contagious and deadly virus spread throughout the world. But is this situation realistic? I met with Dr. Doug Hamilton, a disease detective at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out more.
According to Doug Hamilton, M.D., the director of Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, disease detectives are those who the CDC sends out into the field to respond to public health emergencies.
Contagious disease vs. Infectious Disease
“An agent can be infectious, but the ability to cause disease is different,” says Dr. Hamilton. “In the movie, there is an agent that is highly contagious. It is infectious from person to person and it causes really severe disease.”
A Global Community
In the movie, the disease spreads to nearly 1 billion people in 120 days. But is this possible in real life? Dr. Hamilton says yes.
“In the modern world, it is absolutely possible. We no longer live in little communities,” he says. “You can get infected in one country and be in another country five hours later.
“We live in a global community and diseases that impact Africa [for example], no longer impact just Africa. They impact us too,” he adds.
How do viruses spread?
So how do new viruses spread? Dr. Hamilton says experts have several different theories.
“Viruses like the influenza virus are very susceptible to rearranging,” he explains. “So if two different strains of virus infect the same person, they can mix up their genetic material and make a different virus.”
In the movie, the damage caused by fear of the epidemic almost exceeds the damage caused by the actual virus itself. “I think that getting information out to the public that is timely and accurate [is crucial],” he says. “That is a big part of what CDC tries to do.”
He references the H1N1 outbreak as a good example of the power of public information. “CDC had daily press briefings where we updated the public on exactly how many cases there had been and where they were,” he says.
Staying healthy while traveling
Travel plays a role in the spread of certain diseases and nearly 3 million people travel each day. To protect yourself from respiratory pathogens, Dr. Hamilton recommends washing your hands and being cautious about what you touch. He also notes that is important to be aware of the current level of risk.
“[The level of risk] is different at various times of the year,” he says. “I don’t wash my hands every five minutes this time of year, but during flu season, if I am dealing with a lot of people, I actually may use hand sanitizer.”
His key message? “I think your level of precaution should be appropriate based on the level of risk.”
Dr. Randy Martin: While it is possible for a highly contagious viral outbreak to occur, there are precautions you can take to keep yourself healthy, especially while traveling. Be sure to wash your hands prior to meals and more frequently during flu season. Also, stay informed about current illnesses that may be occurring in your city or in the city to which you are traveling.