Could It Happen? The Truth About Disaster Movies

The question is debated among many science fiction fanatics and writers alike: How will the world end? Perhaps a giant gorilla that wreaks world-ending havoc? Or a final, apocalyptic world war?

Indeed, some of the most famous catastrophe films of all time featured no massive asteroid or alien mother ship closing in on Earth but, instead, invaders not visible to the human eye -- deadly, disease-causing microbes.

Some of these movie concepts may have been spawned by actual events, such as the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed upward of 40 million people. And for some science fiction fans, the reality of lethal microbes makes the scenarios in these films and books all the more believable.

"Viral transmission to a host, climate change and travel are ways to bring about emerging -- and sometimes deadly -- infections," said Dr. Anne Gershon, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Columbia University in New York and president of the Infectious Disease Society of America. "But movies, at times, exaggerate the severity."

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In the following pages, Gershon reveals the truth about 10 infectious disease disaster movies. Warning: Some of these pages may contain movie spoilers.

'The Stand'

Synopsis:

A virus known as Project Blue, meant to be used as a biological weapon, escapes from a military lab and spreads across the world. The epidemic leads to the death of most of the human population, sparing only a few.

Question you may ask:

Is there really a single virus that can wipe out humanity?

What the Experts Say:

In many films like "The Stand" viruses are depicted as clever microbes able to outmaneuver human defenses. But, according to Gershon, the reality is that viruses are not that clever. And, in fact, Gershon said it does not make evolutionary sense for a virus to wipe out humanity.

"One of the most important concepts to think about is that it's never good for pathogens to kill everyone," she said. "A virus can only multiply in a cell, so it's not in its interest to kill off all people."

But, Gershon said, infectious diseases have emerged over the years that have been able to resist treatment. One of these is MRSA, a bacterial superbug. But even these infections are not capable of ending the human race, she said.

"I can't think of a viral infection that will be even 99 percent fatal," Gershon said. "Even smallpox was never that bad."

'The Andromeda Strain'

Synopsis:

A U.S. military satellite crashes in Piedmont, Utah, and unleashes a deadly pathogen that kills all but two of the people it infects. Scientists later find that those remaining survived the plague because they each had naturally high acid levels in their blood.

Question you may ask:

Are some individuals better equipped to survive viral infection?

What the Experts Say:

Gershon said it is true that certain individuals may be able to weather even serious viral infections better than others.

"[Someone] might have more efficient immunity, or some might not be able to be infected at all," she said.

But, according to Gershon, acid levels in the blood -- as noted in the "Andromeda Strain" -- have nothing to do with someone surviving a viral infection. Rather, the genetic makeup of a person has much to do with whether someone will be infected with a virus.

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