Contagion fever hits Children's

On September 9, the new feature film Contagion from Warner Bros. Pictures, Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi will be released in theaters nationwide. The picture sports an all-star cast and revolves around a rapidly spreading virus that threatens to infect millions of people.

Of course it’s a fictional movie, but that’s not to say it’s completely fake. The film’s depiction of how public health workers track the deadly outbreak shows them using a technology similar to HealthMap, a real-life online surveillance system designed to track emerging infectious disease threats. Co-founded by John Brownstein, PhD and Clark Freifeld of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Informatics Program, HealthMap has over a million users a year including regular users from the World Health Organization, the CDC and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Here at Children’s, the excitement around Contagion is “spreading.” Participant Media recently launched a social action campaign and web site around the film, aimed at raising awareness about disease transmission and offering a window into the real world of pandemics. HealthMap is a featured associate of the campaign and is highlighted in the “Pandemic Pulse” section and related Facebook simulation.

Click this map for an overview of HelathMap through the years
While the technology used in Pandemic Pulse and Contagion may be cutting edge, the drama surrounding the threat of global disease is nothing new to Hollywood. For years audiences have been glued to the edge of their seats, watching movie heroes battle disease and widespread panic.


In keeping with that theme, Thriving recently spoke with John Brownstein to discuss how HealthMap, had it been available to other movie protagonists, may have been able to help save the day.

Andromeda Strain (1971)

In this science fiction thriller, a crashed military space capsule introduces a disease-causing microorganism to Earth. Named the Andromeda Strain, the virus quickly infects human blood with deadly results. Just minutes after entering Earth’s atmosphere, almost an entire town is destroyed, with the exception of two people: an old man and screaming infant. The disease-causing organism is temporarily contained, pitting scientists in a race against time to determine why the child and old man survived, in hopes that an antidote can be created to prevent a worldwide spread of the mysterious and deadly virus.

In the movie it’s determined that the two survivors are spared because the PH level in their blood is different than those of the average human, making them a lousy host. Would HealthMap or any other of your programs be helpful in passing that type of info along to researchers or the general public?

JB: HealthMap captures and shares different types of information in many ways. We accept eyewitness reports through our webpage and OutbreaksNearMe app so in events like this we could potentially get reports of a rapidly spread illness extremely quickly. A military space capsule crashing into earth would certainly make the news as well and since HealthMap uses local media for disease outbreak alerts, we would be aware of a situation like this as it happens and could post it immediately to our map. A huge advantage to this system is that it doesn’t really matter what language the news is in. We currently analyze news in nine different languages and plan to continue expanding. In an Andromeda Strain scenario our users would learn about the virus either through visiting our global map or visiting their local page; “Outbreaks Near Me.”

Once there users can search through case alerts of all types including: “Vector-borne”, “environmental”, “neurological, animal”, “respiratory” or “other” disease categories.

We also recently created a news page called the Disease Daily. Users can visit this page to get more in depth and contextual information about disease outbreaks, symptoms, and ways to protect oneself.

Outbreak (1995)

This thriller follows army doctors as they investigate a rapidly spreading outbreak of hemorrhagic fever (an illness that causes fever and a variety of bleeding disorders. Think: bleeding through eyes, gums and mouth). The virus originates in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and the film does an excellent job of tracking it, person to person, from Africa to the United States. Once it hits the USA, the virus spreads at an alarming pace through a small town in California, sparing none of its hosts.

One of the scary things about this virus is how quickly it spread before anyone could adequately respond to it. How would HealthMap’s services have changed this situation?

JB: Again, in a situation like this using media would be incredibly useful. Reporters cover every aspect of events like this. And now, with improved phone and camera technology, everyone can be a reporter. By scouring local and social media we would be alerted of these unusual outbreaks and could then share that information with a larger population. Knowledge is power; if people knew an outbreak was occurring in real-time, they could take appropriate measures to protect themselves and their communities. Of course, the goal of HealthMap is not to scare people or to cause any sort of knee jerk reactions to infectious disease events, but getting the health news out to more people may mean a faster reaction time and more lives saved.

Every zombie movie ever made

An ancient curse, nuclear meltdown or scientific experiment goes awry. Before you know it the dead are returning to life and feeding on the living. Once bitten the victims become zombies themselves and the cycle continues with disastrous results.

In the unlikely event of a zombie apocalypse, how could HealthMap help?

JB: Have you seen Zombieland? I think the advice there was to get in your cardio, and I’d have to agree: Be prepared to run. Of course, as you head to the hills I’d recommend stocking up on water, emergency medicine, food, and check alerts on HealthMap. That is assuming we weren’t eaten already, in which case you’re on your own.