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Evanston officials, NU alum discuss feasibility of ‘Contagion’ in real life

Marshall Cohen

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Award-winning author and journalist Maryn McKenna warned Sunday the United States is not nearly as prepared for a global pandemic as it appears to be in the recent film “Contagion.”

About 25 people attended the discussion panel Sunday night in Harris Hall, 1881 Sheridan Rd., which featured Medill graduate McKenna as well as Feinberg professors and Evanston health officials.

“The movie is fiction, but it is surprisingly realistic and the only thing that it gets wrong is that it’s too positive about how fast our government and science can really respond to something so big,” McKenna said. “We are really not in as good shape as the movie says we are.”

In the film, scientists create a vaccine for a virus within the span of four months. McKenna said in reality, that process would take closer to nine months, leading to millions of additional deaths.

“We don’t even have the beginning of the research done to get us on track for that kind of speed, and there’s no funding for that research anyway,” she said. “If the movie had been completely true to the science, it would be so depressing that nobody would want to see it, no matter how many A-list stars appeared.”

Still, McKenna said the government response in “Contagion” mirrored “almost paragraph for paragraph” the guidelines of the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, as written by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Other experts on the panel, including Feinberg professor Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, agreed the box office hit – parts of which were filmed near the NU campus earlier this year – was overall scientifically accurate.

“The movie was very realistic and honestly it felt like another day at the office for me,” Wurtz said. “It was very well done, in contrast to most movies like that which really go for the sensational tone.”

McKenna added the film “almost exactly copied” how the Nipah virus originally formed on a Malaysian farm 1999 and also how SARS spread throughout Asia in 2003.

“People shouldn’t ask if a global pandemic could happen, since it already has,” McKenna said. “The film depicts an extremely realistic scenario based on past events.”

Ren Yu, who graduated from McCormick in 2010, still lives in Evanston and attended Sunday’s event, which he said highlighted some “real concerns.”

“For me as an alum, this is a great way to stay engaged with the University,” Yu said. “I want to be on the cutting edge and stay informed and engaged, and I feel more informed now because I didn’t know a lot of this information before tonight.”

The panel eventually pivoted to a discussion of the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

A-Reum Han, Evanston’s emergency response coordinator, also sat on the panel and called the outbreak the “most challenging” health event since she started working for the city.

“We did have a plan in place, but another big challenge was to dispel myths and getting our message out there to the public,” Han said. “We just can’t control what other people are saying.”

Evonda Thomas, director of the Evanston Health Department, agreed rumors and misinformation were pervasive enough to convince city residents not to get the swine flu shot once it was made available. She said the city conducted a survey and found one segment of the population had been particularly absent from the vaccination process.

“It was very clear that people of color did not get vaccinated,” Thomas said. “When we looked at the demographics and the numbers, we saw such a huge disparity in Evanston. I don’t know if we did a good enough job of engaging the community about getting the vaccine.”

At one point, Wurtz asked members of the audience if they had received their flu shot this year.

“And to the people who didn’t raise their hands,” she asked, “why haven’t you been vaccinated?”

Also participating in the discussion were Margaret Keeler, Evanston’s communicable disease surveillance specialist, and Dr. Sarah Lovinger, Feinberg professor and executive director of the Chicago chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

McKenna, who graduated from Medill in 1985, currently works as a health blogger for Wired and as a freelance magazine writer. Her book, “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA,” was published last year.

Northwestern University, the City of Evanston and Chicago Physicians for Social Responsibility sponsored the event, titled “Contagion: From Hollywood to Public Health Policy.”

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