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Bird Flu TV Movie: Grim Worst Case

<P>Some Errors, Some Painful Truths in Worst-Case Bird Flu Movie</P>
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 9, 2006 -- A deadly bird flubird flu is devastating the world -- but only in a made-for-TV movie.

ABC's Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America is fiction. It presents a worst-of-worst-cases scenario of what might happen in a pandemic of deadly, highly contagious bird flu.

Could what happens in the movie really take place? Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for global health at the Council of Foreign Relations, was a script consultant for the movie (at her request, her name does not appear in the movie credits). She's seen an advance screening.

Garrett, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, is author of The Coming Plague and Betrayal of Trust. The first book warns that world conditions are ripe for the emergence of deadly new diseases. The second warns that global public health is in a state of decline.

"The film is very grim. But I don't think it is sensationalistic," Garrett tells WebMD. "I didn't think they exaggerated, but it is a worst-case scenario. A virulent, highly contagious flu comes to America. There is no viable vaccine on tap. The drugs have limited or no efficacy. There are shortages of essential supplies and goods that become acute later in the epidemic."

Fact vs. Fiction

So what about the movie is realistic, and what is not? First, some basic facts:

  • There is no bird flu epidemic in humans anywhere in the world.
  • H5N1 bird flu virus -- the strain that has killed more than 160 people, mostly in Asia -- cannot easily spread from person to person. Human infections can be deadly. But in nearly all cases people caught the virus after close contact with infected chickens or ducks. The very few cases of suspected human-to-human transmission came after extended, close personal contact.
  • Flu pandemics aren't always plagues. The 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics were a lot like a particularly bad flu season.
  • While the H5N1 bird flu virus is very deadly, it might act very differently if it were to become a pandemic virus. That is, the virus would have to change in order to spread among humans. Those changes may make it far less deadly than the version that now spreads in birds.

In the movie, migrating birds spread the flu virus. In real life, migrating birds do seem to spread the disease among other birds. But many experts think it's the international trade in poultry -- not wild birds -- that spreads the virus.

In the movie, the arrival of infected wild birds is a harbinger of doom. In real life, migrating birds carry all sorts of flu viruses. If wild birds carrying H5N1 bird flu show up in the U.S. -- and many think that's inevitable -- it does not signal the start of a human epidemic.

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