Could It Happen? The Truth About Disaster Movies

Medical expert explores the truth behind diseases depicted in entertainment.

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.

'The Stand'


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'


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.

"Even with close exposure of the virus, there will be some people who will never be affected," she said.

'I Am Legend'


Scientist Robert Neville, played by actor Will Smith, may be the last human survivor on Earth after a man-made virus wipes out most of the world's population. After years of searching for survivors, Neville learns he is living among killer mutants that have been infected by the virus. Meanwhile, Neville searches for a way to reverse the effects of the virus and save the human race.

Question you may ask:

Can you reverse the effects of a virus once individuals have already been infected?

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.

'28 Days Later'


Animal activists break into a British research facility and release chimpanzees that are infected with a virus. The virus, which spreads throughout London, is transmitted in a drop of blood and sends those infected into a permanent state of murderous rage.

Question you may ask:

Is there a virus that can cause insanity in someone who is infected?

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.

'12 Monkeys'


A deadly supervirus has wiped out all but 1 percent of the world's population, who are forced to live underground. Convict James Cole, played by actor Bruce Willis, is sent back in time to explore the origins of the epidemic so that scientists can prevent the release of the virus.

Question you may ask:

Will staying underground during a viral epidemic protect me?

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.

'Outbreak '


A virus kills the inhabitants of the Motaba River Valley in Zaire. Although a firebomb is dropped onto the Motaba River Valley to reduce the chances of further infection, the lethal virus is transported to the United States by an infected monkey and begins a new epidemic.

Question you may ask:

Will wearing surgical or other forms of masks protect me from infection during an epidemic?

What the Experts Say:

Many characters in this and other virus-related movies are often immersed in the contaminated environment but are protected because they are wearing masks. And while it may seem unrealistic that a mask can shield a person from a deadly infection, a mask may, in fact, do the trick, depending on how the disease spreads, Gershon said.

"Some viruses spread from contact, and some spread from the air," Gershon said. "So a face mask will not protect you from viruses that you can contract from touching someone or something that is infected."

But in an "Outbreak"-like scenario, wearing a mask may protect some from the airborne virus, she said.

'The Happening'


In a mysterious occurrence, a number of people in New York City begin killing themselves without reason, in a calm and deliberate fashion. While it is not clear throughout the movie what is causing people to commit suicide, it is later discovered that a neurological agent contracted from trees and plants is causing people to lose their minds.

Question you may ask:

Can viruses travel through plants?

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."

'Cabin Fever'


Five friends are on vacation in the mountains when one accidentally kills a hermit with a flesh-eating disease and dumps his body in a reservoir outside of their cabin. After another friend unwittingly drinks from the reservoir, she contracts the flesh-eating virus and passes the disease to the others, one by one.

Question you may ask:

Is there really such thing as a flesh-eating virus?

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.

'Children of Men'


Nearly two decades of infertility are causing the human race to slowly die out. But the protagonist, Theo Faron, finds one woman who is pregnant and he teams up with his ex-wife to protect the woman so the baby can save the human race from extinction.

Question you may ask:

Is there a virus that causes infertility?

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.

'Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America'


"Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" entertains the scenario of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, or bird flu, pandemic in the United States. Although the H5N1 virus has not yet appeared here, the movie is based on the emergence of bird flu cases in Southeast Asia.

Question you may ask:

What is the likelihood of a bird flu pandemic in America?

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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