The CDC Debunks Hollywood Myths About Pandemics

It's always refreshing to see films and television shows where scientists are portrayed as heroes — except when the science itself is bogus. Over at the CDC, bloggers are endeavoring to inoculate the public against the entertainment industry's most egregious "outbreak" clichés.

The CDC illustrates the contrast between fiction and the real world by documenting how it responded to last year's outbreak of dengue fever in Angola. The entire post is worth reading in full, but here are the main points:

Myth #1: Mystery Disease X

"Although Hollywood likes to make it seem like every outbreak is a complete mystery, most of the time when a team goes into the field, preliminary diagnostic testing has already suggested the cause of the outbreak before a foot hits the ground."

Myth # 2: Rushing into the field on a moment's notice

"The special red phone in the CDC Director's office rings, an ominous look draws over their face, and a team is on a plane that evening, right? Not quite. There is a lot of careful planning that has to go into an outbreak response that may last weeks or longer in a country you've probably never visited. You have a limited idea of what exactly you'll be doing once you get there, so you don't immediately know what equipment and supplies will be needed in the field. In addition, most countries require visas to get in, which can take days or weeks to receive, even in an emergency."

Myth # 3: One of the "disease detectives" always gets infected

"Does being in the field put you at greater risk for being infected with whatever bug is causing the outbreak? Probably, but we're sent into the field with a small pharmacy of pills, sprays and ointments to either prevent us from getting sick or to treat us when we do get sick."

Myth # 4: CDC saves the day

"In the movies, CDC is usually portrayed as a public health SWAT team…. it rarely works that way. First, CDC is only ever involved in an outbreak response by formal invitation from the state or country in which the outbreak is occurring. Second, CDC never acts alone. In Angola, we worked on the outbreak response with local health officials, foreign governments, USAID, World Health Organization, and local non-governmental organizations."

Myth # 5 Outbreaks can rapidly spread worldwide

"OK, this one is actually pretty accurate. The ease and frequency of international travel has increased the likelihood of cases from any given outbreak being imported into other cities, especially if the outbreak happens in a large, international city like Luanda…. When physicians see a patient with a fever who has recently traveled to Africa, they are likely to suspect malaria, but not dengue….we decided to release [a report] to notify clinicians in the U.S. and abroad of the need to be vigilant for dengue as a potential cause of fever in residents of and travelers returning from Angola."