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Disease Scenarios Contagious In Fact And Fiction

Fri., March 10, 1995, midnight

The world teeters on the edge of ruin. Time is running out. Military, scientific and government leaders scurry to save humankind.

Is it nuclear war? An alien invasion? Godzilla reborn?

Hardly. It’s a mere virus - minuscule, microscopic. And it’s coming today to a movie theater near you.

“Outbreak,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman and directed by Wolfgang Petersen (“In the Line of Fire”), tells the story of a lethal microbe that lays waste to an African village, then travels halfway around the globe and begins to fell the residents of a California town.

The movie storms onto screens as the first major studio release of 1995 with equal prospects of rave reviews and a boffo box office.

It also arrives as a telling sign of anxious times, at least if popular entertainment is any indication.

Americans are feeling more than a bit buggy about bugs - the medical kind, that is.

“We need a new fear,” says Christopher Foreman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who is studying plagues and politics.

“We need something new to be frightened of, and this is plausible for us because we’ve had more than a decade of AIDS and because we know that there’s a genuine threat of emerging microbes,” Foreman says. “It’s a very short step from that to a screenplay.”

Television has caught the fever, too. Stephen King’s “The Stand,” envisioning a world winnowed drastically by disease, aired last year, while an episode of “The X Files” last month included sophisticated techno-babble about retroviruses, blood and contagion.

The notion of a medical or microbiological apocalypse works as well as any other doomsday scenario, because it reflects unexpected events in America over recent years and current confusions about the degree to which we’ve conquered infectious diseases and the degree to which we remain vulnerable.

“AIDS has sort of lowered everybody’s threshold for panic about weird new diseases and made them more easily frightened about the specter,” notes Dr. Terrie Taylor, an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan State University who specializes in tropical diseases.

If AIDS has been the shrillest alarm, however, it hasn’t been the only one.

The past decade has witnessed panic about Lyme Disease, Epstein Barr virus, chronic fatigue and the enigmatic Gulf War Syndrome.

The past few years have witnessed scares over an intestinal parasite in the Milwaukee water system, bacterial contamination of fast-food hamburgers in the Seattle area and a so-called hantavirus that caused fatal lung infections in the rural Southwest and elsewhere.

None caused an epidemic. Even so, they shook Americans’ faith that modern medicine had banished certain kinds of sickness to the annals of scientific history.

Premonitions of plague are not new. On screen, for example, there was “Panic in the Streets,” a 1950 thriller about a latter-day case of the Black Death in New Orleans; “The Satan Bug,” a 1965 thriller about a lethal virus stolen from a government laboratory; and, of course, “The Andromeda Strain,” a 1971 thriller about a satellite that comes back to earth harboring disease-causing agents. It was based on a novel by Michael Crichton.

What’s slightly different about the current meditations on medical catastrophe is they take less obvious flights of fancy and ground themselves more deliberately in public health discussions actually taking place.

“The Hot Zone” and “The Coming Plague,” while derided by some critics as overly hyped and unduly alarmist, are still nonfiction books.

“Outbreak,” which nurtures the scientific seeds of those books into a fantastical flower, nonetheless strives to tuck it into a garden with legitimately scientific scenery. Its extensive production notes include lengthy information about viral threats in the world and even a quote from “The Coming Plague.”

Its backers’ conviction in the material’s timeliness and topicality is confirmed by their rush to get “Outbreak” made before a competing project, “Crisis in the Hot Zone,” based on Preston’s book, could take shape. That movie, which was to be directed by Ridley Scott with Robert Redford and Jodie Foster in the lead roles, appears to be dead now.

Garrett’s book, which is subtitled “Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance,” details a panoply of reasons why Americans and other residents of the globe may be more vulnerable to severe, unexpected outbreaks than in decades past.

Incursions into, and destruction of, certain ecosystems such as the rain forest have put human beings in contact with new microbes, Garrett says. Speedy global travel spreads these agents, setting up a microbiological cross-pollination of unprecedented scope. Modern rituals ranging from air-conditioning to multiple sex partners gives microbes new expressways to widespread infection.

Garrett theorizes that one reason this scenario, or the components of it present in “The Hot Zone” and “Outbreak,” is catching the attention of book publishers and movie producers is because it’s a largely class-blind phenomenon. In the past, wealthier people living in areas with better sanitation felt their status insulated them from epidemics.

When sex, world travel, hamburger meat or the public water supply is the soil in which an epidemic grows, however, the rich can feel as vulnerable as the poor.

“You no longer have the privilege of social class to protect you,” Garrett says. “I think that’s a key point. I think we in the industrialized world have been very smug and arrogant.”

Others take issue with her brand of urgency, saying it focuses on selective evidence. They say Americans in the 1990s are better equipped to ward off and battle epidemics than in the past.


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