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Nothing spreads like fear

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“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone”. That is one of the dialogues in the new Hollywood thriller Contagion. The film revolves around the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to deal with the outbreak.

There are plenty of medical and pharmaceutical references that pharmacists will identify with in this film, including the race to develop a vaccine before more people around the world contract the disease and die, and all the hurdles that must be cleared – clinical trials, approval, distribution plans, etc – before the vaccine could be released for human use.

Alan Krumweide (played by Jude Law, with a terrible Australian accent in my opinion) is a conspiracy theory-minded journalist who posts video blogs, claiming he was cured of the disease using a homoeopathic remedy based on forsythia. Needless to say, with his 12 million strong Twitter followers, demand for the product soared and people queued at pharmacies to buy the product. When supply fails to meet demand, chaos ensues and people turn to rioting and looting in the pharmacy and beyond. [Spoiler ahead] It turns out Mr Krumweide never contracted the disease but was trying to boost demand of the homoeopathic product on behalf of investors in the companies making and distributing the product. His actions have caused the disease to spread faster as people congregate at pharmacies to try to obtain this product. [spoiler ends]

This film reminded me of the SARS and H1N1 era, when fear of contracting the disease was high, and I was receiving telephone calls regularly asking for Tamiflu. Some people were determined to receive a supply for themselves and their families, almost verging of the side of aggression. I, on the other hand, had my own fears about working in a pharmacy when we were being told a possible epidemic could occur. I considered wearing a mask while at work. Of course, wearing masks is an unproven method of lowering the chances of catching the virus, but I let my own fears and worries take over.

One of the main themes of the film is around the dissemination of information. How much should the medical authorities tell the public without causing panic if there is a possible outbreak of a deadly disease? What are the consequences of releasing too much information? Fear? Chaos? Rioting? Looting? Then there are those who deliberately disseminate false information in a hope to capitalise on people’s fears. The homoeopathic industry is going to love the PR from this film.

One last thing, the director has done a superb job of instilling fear in this film. The way those scenes of hand rails, door knobs, feeding a child or a simple handshake are shot has certainly made me think twice about holding the hand rail on the bus this morning. Now where did I put that bottle of hand sanitiser?

Benedict Lam

Contributions editor, PJ

Editor, Tomorrow’s Pharmacist

 

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