Could It Happen Here?

A University Panel Explores Epidemiological Implications of the Movie "Outbreak"

by Fernando Quintero

Try to remain calm.

That is the slogan for the new hit medical thriller, "Outbreak," about a deadly and fast-moving virus that nearly decimates an entire Northern California town.

At a special screening of the film March 21 at Pacific Film Archive, a panel of experts from the School of Public Health as well as state and local communicable disease officials warned that the ominous message isn't all just Hollywood hype.

"This could be real life, not science fiction," said George Rutherford, associate dean for administration at the School of Public Health and former state health officer.

Rutherford was among panelists at a press conference following the screening, organized by students and faculty from Public Health.

The other guests were physicians Fran Taylor, director of communicable diseases for the San Francisco Department of Public Health; Bob Benjamin, director of communicable diseases for the Alameda County Department of Public Health; and Michael Ascher, acting chief of the state Health Service's Division of Communicable Disease Control laboratory.

Rutherford said that although scientific facts in the movie may have been stretched a bit for the sake of melodrama, serious concerns remain over the nation's ability to control the spread of new and resistant infections.

He and the other panelists are urging Congress to provide full funding of the Centers for Disease Control's rapid response networks.

"We can't do our job without resources," said Rutherford. "Not much money has been diverted to surveillance systems. The few that exist are just starting up."

A statement released by the event organizers said "experts agree that an assessment of our present capabilities is necessary. Funding cuts to the nation's public health system have allowed resistant microbes to flourish unchecked."

In Wisconsin, 400,000 people fell ill and 100 people died from microorganisms in the water supply. In the Pacific Northwest in 1993, hundreds were stricken and five children died after eating hamburgers contaminated with E. coli.

"In both of these instances, hundreds of people fell ill before the public health system was able to fully respond," the statement said.

Locally, the health officials said there has been an increase in cases of tuberculosis and hepatitis A. Also, a diphtheria epidemic in the Soviet Union threatens to spread to the Bay Area following the recent influx of Russian immigrants.

In "Outbreak," Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo play infectious disease specialists who try to stop an African virus from killing everyone in the U.S. while also dealing with their divorce, covert military secrets and a deranged Army superior played by Donald Sutherland.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
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