Actress Gwyneth Paltrow in "Contagion," directed by Steven Soderbergh (photo courtesy of Nick Plus Movies)

Story from The Takeaway. Listen to audio for full report.

Storming the box office this past weekend was Steven Soderbergh's thriller "Contagion," a suspense film following the worldwide spread of a disease starring Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow and Matt Damon.

Dr. Jon Epstein, a veterinary epidemiologist who specializes in emerging viruses, says the film's fictional plot could happen in real life.

"I found the movie very realistic," Epstein said. "The writer and director went to great measures to make it medically accurate. They had scientific consultants on set." 

Epstein's field of study includes Nipah, the deadly virus upon which the fictional virus from the film is based. Although Nipah is more fatal than the fictional virus, it is not nearly as infectious as the virus from the film. But other viruses that are cropping up worldwide show that current state of affairs is ripe for disaster.

"There's more and more of these emerging diseases happening than ever before," Epstein said. "It's important to realize that human beings are putting pressure on natural systems in ways we never have before." Epstein went on to point out that raising domesticated flora and livestock near wild environments cause interactions that are unnatural--such as rainforest bats being able to feed off a farmer's pigs, the bats bite people and cause disease. These unnatural interactions can bring about more mutations of viruses.

Although a thriller like "Contagion" can be easily understood as just another piece of entertainment, Epstein notes that the realistic nature of the film creates awareness about maintaining public health.

"Public education and preventative measures are really important in terms of being aware of when you're sick staying out of the public, hand-washing," Epstein said. And it's the converse of these very measures (e.g. not hand-washing) that "contribute to the spread of the virus."

View trailer for "Contagion":


"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what's ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.


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