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Bird Flu in America?

10th May 2006

31052006_medical_mask1.jpgBird flu has yet to hit the United States, but TV producers, with their minds on ratings, are already speculating about what would happen should the avian influenza virus mutate to a form that can be passed from human to human. On 9 May, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired the movie entitled Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America, which portrays the deadly consequences of one businessman's trip to Hong Kong, where he picks up a mutated form of the virus from a factory worker and brings it back home to the United States.

What follows is a nightmare of some 20 million deaths worldwide, accompanied by hoarding of vaccines, food shortages and economic disaster. And this, the film hints, is only the beginning.

To the director's credit, the movie does start off with a responsible disclaimer that "this film is a fictional examination of the question 'what if'". But that hasn't calmed the fears of several experts who, having seen the film, think it may give the wrong impression.

John Barry, historian and author of a bestselling book on the real 1918 pandemic (The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History) served as consultant to the film, although he says not all of his ideas were incorporated. "The ending, I think, is more than simply overdone," he said in a discussion about the film with the public-policy group Trust for America's Health. But, he adds, "one benefit of this movie is that it raises people's awareness".

Several experts balk at is the extreme calamity in the film, and some technical errors in showing how the disease might spread. During the American businessman's return flight home, the 'Typhoid Mary' character wipes his mouth on a napkin, which is picked up by a bartender who then places a virus-laced olive into the martini of another passenger.

Michael Osterholm, associate director of the US Department of Homeland Security's National Center for Food Protection and Defense, notes that the main pathway of transmission of a pandemic virus will probably be coughing and sneezing, rather than this sort of hand-to-hand transmission, making it less likely to spread quite so easily.

There are a few other scientific glitches in the film, including doctors hanging about in wards wearing only flimsy paper masks. But on the whole, the devil isn't in the details, but in the overall message, said experts in the Trust for America's Health discussion.

"It will lead people to believe that we have lost control of the situation," said Osterholm. "We know that a pandemic could be serious, but we also know that we will get through a pandemic." The ending, says Osterholm, leads one to believe that the avian flu is "going to wipe out the world". He doesn't think that's a likely outcome.

It seems probable that there would be some panic, confusion and mistakes should a pandemic form of flu hit the United State, but the film surely steps over the line of a reasonable scenario, says Jacqueline Ruttimann in Nature.

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