In our third podcast we’re looking at disease. It doesn’t take much effort to think of a movie that has some element of disease in the plot, usually with the spread of an illness by some evil person/accident/animal resulting in a global threat that could wipe out the human race. But, is this how disease works away from the silver screen? Could a single monkey bite destroy civilisation as we know it? How do we protect ourselves and what do we do if we are infected?
A disease is something that can cause a harmful/negative effect on anything that is alive. It is sometimes caused by something infectious (such as bacteria or virus – known as a pathogen), although can also come from environmental stress and genetic defects. In the 1995 popular ‘medical disaster movie’ Outbreak, a virus originating from a monkey starts to spread through the human population causing severe symptoms (resulting in haemorrhagic fever & killing within three days), causing the US Army to react and attempt to halt the outbreak.
During the movie, propelled by some suspicious and highly dramatic characters (chiefly played by Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and of course Morgan Freeman), the United States looks to find the escaped disease spreading white-headed capuchin monkey. However, little do the good guys know, there is an underlying plot to keep the virus for use as a biological weapon. Fortunately, just as the US Army are about to bomb the town where the outbreak occurred, the rogue monkey is found and sanity is restored.
Can this scale of response really result from a viral outbreak? A recent outbreak to cause an international response was Ebola in western Africa. Although Ebola itself is not a new virus, first been described in 1976 and having caused disease in subsequent years, the current outbreak, starting in December 2013 is the first to reach epidemic proportions. A mix of issues including extreme poverty, mistrust in government officials and a poor healthcare infrastructure strengthened the spread of the virus. Click here for more information on the 2013 Ebola outbreak.
During this podcast we spoke to Prof Joanna Verran, who describes the similarities of the virus described in Outbreak to that of Ebola. Also discussed are other movies including Contagion, which shows an outbreak that, although less dramatized and closer to reality, still portrays a fearful potential of a global epidemic. The issues surrounding disease are many, with numerous types of infectious agents (bacteria, viruses, fungi etc), causing an unknown number of diseases, with different methods of spreading, stopping and protecting from, it is obviously a topic that movie makers can continue to rely on. That said, rest assured that dramatizing outbreaks do not mean that any government, the US or other, are likely to drop a bomb on your town at the first sight of a few sneezes!
- Prof Jo Verran’s Bad Bugs Book Club for a rundown of novels where infectious disease make up part of the plot
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