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‘Contagion’ thriller sure to scare — and teach

09/06/2011 8:28 AM Boston.com By Chelsea Conaboy, Globe Staff The first time I saw the trailer for the movie “Contagion,” I felt my stomach knot with anxiety as I sat in the dark theater. “Why do they make movies like that?” I whispered to my boyfriend. I imagined the movie paralyzing people, perhaps me included, with irrational fears about an unrealistic, monster virus that takes the world hostage. “Movies like this can sensationalize events and also can communicate a very distorted picture of what actually happens in cases like this,” said K. Vish Viswanath, associate professor of society, human development, and health at Harvard School of Public Health. But, the makers of Contagion reportedly put a lot of thought into getting their portrayal of science and the public health response right. They consulted with officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and W. Ian Lipkin, MD, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Those experts helped to design a fictional virus that could plausibly be passed from animal to human and to imagine how public health officials and the public would respond. Viswanath, who studies how people get and distribute information during public health emergencies, hasn’t seen the movie. But, he said, if it is done well, it could become an important teaching tool at a time when the H1N1 pandemic is still fresh in people’s minds. Public health officials must make complex decision when facing crises , including where to distribute vaccines or how to allocate hospital beds. Those choices are difficult to convey in the abstract, in advance of such an event, Viswanath said. “Social distancing,” or refraining from contact with other people to avoid spreading or contracting a disease, can be especially hard for people to understand and practice. “These movies bring those complex ideas into reality — or fictional reality,” he said. “People are much more engaged because it’s a story.” Screenwriter Scott Burns told the The Nation’s Health, a publication of the American Public Health Association, that he washes his hands more now but making the movie made him “less fearful and more philosophical.” “I became acutely aware of how there is a shared health of a society,” he said. To spread the message of protecting that shared health, Participant Media, a backer of the film, has created a website about pandemics and the people working to prevent them. Viswanath said he was encouraged that “Contagion” may do more good than harm in alerting people to the reality of health emergencies. How long its underlying messages could stick in the public mind is yet to be seen, he said. http://www.boston.com/2011/09/06/contagion/Js5TYXYh75GwNtbG98Y8xN/story.html