Spoiler alert: Don’t read if you haven’t seen the film Contagion (which I highly recommend) but want to.

“Recently, I saw the new movie Contagion which is about the rapid spread of a virus and how it killed many people around the world while the health authorities refused to consider a potential (natural) cure and instead waited for the development of a vaccine.”

So starts the Ponsonby News’1 resident health ‘correspondent’ (and online vitamin and supplement seller) John Appleton in his December column. Funnily enough, I also saw Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, and have a rather different recollection of the movie. I’ll start by saying I loved it. As science-based movies go, it’s pretty accurate, which isn’t something that can usually be said of science in movies. Well, apart from the fact that the scientists don’t seem to balance their centrifuges. But I’m not going to bang on about that. For those who haven’t seen Contagion, it’s a kind of worst-case-scenario-type movie involving a highly infectious virus (which spreads with the aid of inanimate objects like glasses and door handles – known as fomites( with a massive mortality rate. The virus spreads from an animal to a person and then pretty much rampages across the world with the help of aeroplanes and other forms of transportation. It is absolutely terrifying, even more so because, in this modern world of globalisation and habitat encroachment and destruction, it really could happen this way.

The film’s science advisor was Dr W Ian Lipkin, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He based the fictional virus in Contagion on Nipah virus, first identified in 1999, when it caused an outbreak of neurological and respiratory disease on pig farms in Malaysia, resulting in over 250 human cases, including 105 human deaths, and the culling of one million pigs. Nipah is carried by some species of fruit bats and its transmission from bats to pigs is thought to be due to an increasing overlap between bat habitats and piggeries in peninsular Malaysia. Like the fictional virus in Contagion, Nipah causes fever and headache leading to coma, but in 14-16 days not four.

Anyway, that’s enough virology. Let’s look at Mr Appleton’s recollection of the “potential (natural( cure” that the health authorities were ignoring, busying themselves instead with trying to find a vaccine. What Mr Appleton is referring to is a subplot involving a blogger and internet conspiracy theorist called Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law. He uses his blog to push a homeopathic cure called forsythia, while making money from it. Sounds awfully familiar to me. Krumwiede is portrayed as a real believer, not a cynical charlatan, which also sounds awfully familiar. The film nicely portrays the power of the internet to spread misinformation, as Krumwiede posts footage of himself clearly suffering some viral infection, then taking forsythia and surviving. Turns out he just had the flu. But his championing of a ‘cure’ while the authorities race to find a vaccine leads to a quite chilling scene where people stampede in a pharmacy trying to get hold of forsythia. I thought the director was pretty blatant in his lampooning of the Krumwiede character. But it was obviously too subtle for a true believer. A classic case of confirmation bias, where we see what we want to believe in the ‘evidence’ presented.

But am I just as bad? Where Mr Appleton sees the health authorities ignoring the ‘natural’ brigade, I see the film as a champion for science. Here we have teams of scientists all doing their bit; some are trying to find the source of the infection, others are trying to grow the virus in the lab and develop a vaccine, and then we have the ones dealing with the infected laboratory monkeys trialling potential vaccines. One of the characters even does a ‘Barry Marshall’2, dosing herself with the top candidate vaccine and then visiting her dying father in hospital to expose herself to the virus.

While the lesson I take from the movie is how we really should be addressing the issue of habitat destruction if we want to avoid such a pandemic in the future, Mr. Appleton uses it as a chance to push the importance of taking high dose vitamin C to prevent and treat disease. To be fair, at least Vitamin C has an active ingredient, unlike forsythia. Naturally he brings up the case of Allan Smith, the farmer with swine flu, whose family fought to have him treated with high dose vitamin C. He survived. Accompanying Mr Appleton’s column is a full page advert for the book ‘Primal Panace’ by Thomas E Levy, which promises to reveal how “Vitamin C can be used to prevent and treat hundreds of infectious diseases (viral and bacterial(…”. If we do face a pandemic, is this what the people of Ponsonby are going to be stampeding to their pharmacies to buy? Oh I forgot, they can buy it from Mr Appleton’s website. Enough said.

  1. The Ponsonby News is a monthly 150 page glossy A4 advertising magazine distributed free to over 16,000 homes and businesses in Auckland.

  2. The Australian medic who won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for his role in the discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease; he famously drank a culture of H. pylori, developing gastritis a few days later.

I declare the following conflict of interest (which is more than John Appleton ever does…): I am a publicly funded research scientist working in the field of microbiology. I am a strong proponent of vaccination. And before you ask, I’m not in the pay of Big Pharma.

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