Could It Happen? The Truth About Disaster Movies

Medical expert explores the truth behind diseases depicted in entertainment.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 9:26 PM

Dec. 19, 2008— -- 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.

What the Experts Say:

Not all viruses can be prevented with a vaccine. But that does not mean that a person cannot adapt to an infection, Gershon said.

In fact, some viral diseases stay in the person who is infected and do not transfer to others. And other viruses, such as the cold, can be treated solely through the body's immune response.

"More frequently, you get over these things on your own and develop immunity and never get it again," she said.

So while there might not be a special pill or injection that can reverse a viral infection, like in the case of "I am Legend," at times the body's defense system can be the best treatment.

What the Experts Say:

Rabies is one virus that may have inspired the film's premise of infection-linked insanity. But in true Hollywood fashion, the outcome of the disease is exaggerated.

"A lot of these movies start off with a potential truth but go off on a fantasy," Gershon said.

Rabies is a prototype for a disease that may involve exhuming insane behavior. The early symptoms of disease cause rage and anger but then result in paralysis and death.

What makes part of the movie accurate is that rabies is a uniformly fatal disease spread by animal bites, she said. But, otherwise, the movie doesn't represent what could really happen.

What the Experts Say:

"That's absurd," Gershon said.

Although finding protection away from an airborne virus by getting away from the open air may seem like a logical escape plan, a virus is able to spread to any part of the earth.

Airborne viruses are the most liable to spread, Gershon said. And the reality of a virus is that there may be no escape if we are surrounded by one.

Still, Gershon said the movie provides a realistic social commentary about the dangerous consequence of animal activists interfering in scientific research.

"I think this movie has more to do with the political note about what can happen if we release animals who are tested and infected with viral diseases," Gershon said.

What the Experts Say:

We certainly have heard of viruses contracted through animals. But "The Happening" introduces the scenario of humans contracting viruses through plants.

"We know that plants have viruses," Gershon said. "But we don't know if viral diseases in plants can be contracted by humans."

While some plants such as poison ivy can cause reactions in the humans who have contact with them, there have yet to be any reported cases of viral infections by plants, she said. And there is no research in this area either, she said.

"Animals, yes, through bites and blood and contact," Gershon said. "But plants are undoubtedly fiction."

What the Experts Say:

"This movie may be referring to a bacterium that causes strep throat or a fever," said Gershon, adding that when a streptococcus bacterium infects the skin, it can cause at times a fatal infection that eats away flesh.

"But," she said, "that is only after a long period and if left untreated. ... There are symptoms and, for most people, it doesn't get to this point."

So, while it's possible for a longstanding bacterial infection to cause physical deformation, the quick turnaround of contamination to eating away at your flesh like in this movie is yet another embellished Hollywood horror scene.

What the Experts Say:

While there is no viral infection that can cause infertility, bacterial infections such as gonorrhea and tuberculosis can cause an individual to be sterile.

"But these infections are treatable," Gershon said. "So this is another false scenario."

Infertility affects 7.3 million people in the United States, according to statistics compiled by Resolve: The National Infertility Association. But, Gershon said, there is no indication that as a species we are headed toward sterility.

"We are certainly seeing a rise in women using infertility services," Gershon said. "But I think it's more societal than biological."

Some women may be putting off having children until an older age because they are contributing to the work force. And, for some, an increase in age may increase the difficulty of getting pregnant, Gershon said. Also, some may be choosing to have fewer children right now for economic reasons, she said.

What the Experts Say:

This scenario might certainly seem likely because we have seen infections such as SARS emerge in the United States through infected travelers from Asia.

"It's a very scary scenario," Gershon said. "But, if I had to guess, I would say not likely."

Federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture are actively surveilling for bird flu cases in the United States to confine any early signs of the disease. But there is yet no bird flu on the radar. Also, Gershon said vaccines are now being developed as preemptive protection against the virus. Prevention methods and early detection may significantly decrease the likelihood of a pandemic, she said.

"This would be believable if we were not being careful," Gershon said. "But I think we're paying attention."

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