Local View: Feeling vulnerable after seeing ‘Contagion’?

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If you saw the movie “Contagion” and left the theater not wanting to touch anything or anyone, those instincts could serve you well in a disease pandemic. Pandemics can break out suddenly and spread quickly. They can sicken millions of people before scientists have time to fully investigate the disease and develop appropriate vaccinations or other medications.

It’s important to remember that “Contagion” is not a documentary. Even so, the movie’s convincing story about a worldwide plague may have rattled your nerves. The script was written in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which plays a lead role in the movie. The CDC has said that while the movie depicts an extreme example, the scenario is credible.

The notorious 1918 flu pandemic infected an estimated one-third of the world’s population and caused at least 50 million deaths. Compared to that, we got off pretty easy during the recent H1N1 pandemic thanks to a relatively mild virus, an effective public health response, and a vaccine that was developed quickly. But as “Contagion” shows, the next pandemic could be much more severe.

What would happen in Clark County?

During a pandemic outbreak similar to that in “Contagion,” effective medicines would take time to develop. Until then, Clark County Public Health would work with local, state and national public health partners to protect our community through other methods.

Amid the social chaos that unfolds during the movie are orderly attempts to reduce the physical contact people have with each other. We will rely on this kind of protective community action during a pandemic. These actions might include:

• Increasing space between people by changing seating arrangements, schedules or attendance in places where people gather, such as schools and businesses;

• Temporarily closing schools under certain circumstances;

• Canceling or postponing mass gatherings such as concerts, movies, graduations, and sporting events.

The movie has chilling scenes that show how easily you can catch some viruses, e.g., by shaking someone’s hand or having the misfortune to be downwind of a cough. During a pandemic, Public Health will step up reminders to everyone of the importance of these personal actions:

• Wash hands frequently;

• Cover coughs and sneezes;

• Stay home when sick.

Research shows that these individual and community actions can help slow the spread of pandemics, especially before vaccines and medicines become available.

Are we prepared for a deadly disease outbreak?

Detecting, preparing for and responding to disease outbreaks is core to our work in public health. Every week, we respond to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses like pertussis/whooping cough, chickenpox and viral hepatitis A and B. When new diseases such as SARS and H1N1 influenza emerge, we quickly respond to protect everyone’s health.

Despite enormous budget pressures and a weak economy, Clark County Public Health remains committed to investigating emerging diseases through disease surveillance and through our network of local, state and national public health and health care systems. We routinely practice our emergency plans to ensure we are ready for emerging disease threats and learn what we need to do better.

As the movie shows, when disaster strikes, nothing is more important to each of us than the safety of our loved ones. That’s why it’s important to prepare now. Make sure you have a family preparedness plan to help you protect your family during a pandemic or other emergency. This includes being prepared to stay home for several days or longer and stocking up on food, water and essential medications. For more information, see http://www.getreadyforflu.org/newsite.htm.

A severe pandemic could kill many people despite the best efforts of scientists, individuals and communities. But by continuing to monitor disease outbreaks, refine and exercise our pandemic emergency plans and communicate with residents, Public Health and our health partners can minimize death and disease and promote resilience — the ability of a community to quickly recover.

John Wiesman is the director of Clark County Public Health and Dr. Alan Melnick is a Clark County health officer.