Viral outbreaks have long been a source of dramatic material in movies and TV shows. This is perfectly understandable; viruses present a significant threat. They are invisible to the naked eye and cause our own bodies to rebel against us, yet by the time we notice symptoms we may have passed them on to multiple other people. However, Hollywood rarely seems to do its due diligence when it comes to viral contagions, opting for drama rather than realism. 

But movies are entertainment, so why is an element of realism important? Well, one of the most important tools in preventing the spread of a virus is clear, expert communication to the masses. We only have to look at the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to see how speculation and (overreaction) — from each other, media coverage, and even from our politicians — can hamper our responses. Movies about viruses are entertaining but when portrayed accurately, they also serve an important purpose in informing our general knowledge of how to act in the case of an outbreak.

Let’s review a few of the important aspects of an outbreak scenario, and how they are portrayed in popular culture. What aspects do filmmakers tend to get horribly wrong, what do they get right?  Movies have helped highlight the U.S. opioid crisis, so how can they be useful in virus control?

Contagions

When we talk about contagions, we are flooded with popular images of a harmful virus being passed around, spreading until humanity has entered some kind of pandemic apocalypse. That said, many of us have some factual knowledge of viral outbreaks, and are familiar with terminology such as “airborne” and “incubation period.” So how much do we really know about how contagions spread, and how have movies informed this?

Let’s start with “Outbreak” (1995), which follows the spread of an ebola-like hemorrhagic fever, called ”Motaba,” from Zaire to a small town in the U.S. It presents some interesting ideas, such as the illness being carried by a capuchin monkey and spread to humans. This is something that does happen in real life — it’s called zoonosis and can result in pandemics — such as 2009’s swine flu.

When the Motaba virus in “Outbreak” hits the US, it is depicted as an indiscriminate killer; having a fatal effect upon whomever it infects, regardless of age or underlying health conditions. However, many of the common viral threats we face today have the greatest impact on vulnerable members of the population. When left untreated or without the correct vaccinations, even something as commonplace as shingles can have a serious effect on those over 50 or experiencing a weakened immune system. Though shingles itself is not communicable from person to person, the associated varicella-zoster virus can be spread and can cause chickenpox. It is often these kinds of nuances in viruses that movies don’t address — there is usually a very simple cause and effect, rather than the potential for slight but dangerous variations.

Vaccinations

Vaccinations are one of the most important tools in our contemporary healthcare world. From childhood immunizations to yearly flu shots, they help us to stave off the worst effects of communicable diseases. That we are a thriving population is in no small part due to our access to vaccinations. However, there is also a lot of misinformation.

Anti-vaxx groups exaggerate the very minimal side effects and extremely rare complications (which are often even rarer than getting the disease itself), pulling focus from the immense benefits such as robust disease control, development of individual immune systems, and the improved herd immunity that keeps entire populations much safer. This is why vaccination messaging is so important, and why we must be careful in our popular culture to make certain we present them accurately.

One of the things movies tend to get wrong about viruses is the speed at which they can be developed. There are many things that the movie, “Contagion” (2011) gets right about viruses — from its zoonotic origins to the actions of the Epidemic Intelligence Service in identifying carriers of the depicted illness — but its assertion that a vaccine could be developed within the space of 2 months is unlikely. In reality, vaccines have to go through various phases of testing and development, even in emergency scenarios.

As has been asserted recently by the World Health Organization, the development of a coronavirus vaccine could take upwards of 18 months, and this isn’t unusual, or even a particularly lengthy example. In some cases, the full development of a vaccine can take between 10 to 15 years. In this way, the TV series Z Nation offered some element of accuracy — the premise of the show surrounded the testing of vaccines that were undertaken some three years after the identification of contagion had occurred.

Quarantine and Treatment

The popular culture surrounding viral outbreaks often places the public’s response as one of mass panic. We can’t say that this is entirely inaccurate, as anyone who has attempted to buy hand sanitizer since the COVID19 outbreak will likely have experienced the empty shelves in stores. Movies usually depict the government's response to public concern to be a martial law-like quarantine situation.

Both “Viral” (2016) and “I Am Legend” (2007) show quarantine situations which are enforced by the military. In reality, this is unlikely to be the case — at least not in the way that it is depicted in the movies. For the most part, quarantines occur in medical facilities or on designated military bases and are directed not by the Army or other armed forces but by specialist medical agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

However, rather than under the group quarantines depicted in TV and film, it’s more likely that individuals will be under self-isolation quarantines. This means they’re required to stay in their own homes and submit their temperature readings and other vitals remotely. They generally take care of their own treatments, alleviating symptoms such as headaches and nausea with readily available products such as CBD-based natural remedies alongside prescribed medicines. This isolation helps to remove any unnecessary contact with medical professionals and members of the public and prevents further spread of the contagion.

Conclusion

Movies and TV shows can be useful in communicating valuable information, alongside being great entertainment. Though productions have been known to pay attention to the realities of viral outbreaks, there is still a tendency to lean toward the dramatic inaccuracies. It is up to us to do our due diligence, research effectively, and listen to reports by experts rather than rely upon fictions for our health information. 

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