How CDC saves lives by controlling REAL global disease outbreaks

Contagion September 9 CDCBACKGROUND: Warner Bros. Pictures feature film, Contagion, fictionalizes the world’s emergency response to a novel respiratory disease outbreak. The movie, partially filmed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Headquarters in Atlanta, follows the process to investigate and respond to the unfolding outbreak. CDC’s work and professionals are prominently depicted by major actors in the film.

Can what happened in this film really happen?

Serious, deadly contagious disease outbreaks can and do happen. CDC investigates new contagious diseases—averaging one new contagion per year. These new contagious diseases can emerge right here or only a plane-ride away from here.

It’s not just new diseases that threaten the United States. Some diseases long thought controlled in the United States, like tuberculosis, can reemerge and be more deadly than ever.

CDC is on 24/7 to answer the call when a community or a country needs help to save lives and protect people from health threats. How many people get sick and die immediately depends on the following:

•    the rapid detection of the disease organism,
•    a clear understanding of how it is transmitted person-to-person, and
•    what is needed to stop ongoing transmission. 

At that point it is a race to find the best way to treat and prevent the disease.

CDC is on the frontline 24/7 providing national health security and its success depends on many factors:

•    How many trained scientists it has available to respond
•    The quality of its laboratories
•    The available means to collect and transmit its findings
•    The degree to which people take action to protect themselves and stay healthy

Are we prepared?

CDC is always preparing for, and working to prevent, the next pandemic. At the center of the nation's public health system, CDC exists to protect communities and save lives by controlling disease outbreaks like the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

The CDC’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) serves as the command center for monitoring and coordinating emergency response to public health threats in the U.S. and abroad. Staffed around-the-clock, the EOC serves as CDC's central point of contact for reporting public health threats such as pandemic flu, natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Contagion poster Gwyneth Paltrow

How would CDC control an outbreak?

If a pandemic, like novel H1N1, should occur CDC would conduct an investigation and provide technical assistance to cities, states or international partners dealing with the outbreak. This assistance would include consultation, lab testing and analysis, patient management and care, tracking of contacts and infection control (including isolation and quarantine). CDC’s primary goals would be to determine the cause of the illness, the source of the infection/virus/toxin, learn how it is transmitted and how readily it is spread, how to break the cycle of transmission and prevent further cases and how patients can best be treated. Not only would scientists be working to identify the cause and cure of the outbreak, but CDC acting with other federal and international agencies would send medical teams and first responders to help those in affected areas. Scientists in the labs of CDC would work to develop a vaccine to combat the virus and then distribute and administer it to public.

What is the real story behind the H1N1 outbreak?

An influenza pandemic occurs roughly three times a century. The most severe recently documented influenza pandemic was 1918. About one percent of those who became ill died. Since 1997, CDC and others had been tracking a novel influenza, H5N1, sometimes called bird flu. The world was overdue for an influenza pandemic. H5N1 was and continues to be very deadly, with about 60% of people who develop the illness die. When H1N1 was first recognized in Mexico in 2009, no one could predict whether it was going to be a severe pandemic. Early indications were that healthy young adults died, like in 1918.

The United States had a choice: gamble H1N1 would not kill in high numbers, or work as fast as possible to develop a vaccine and make it available to as many Americans as possible. In fact, there was no choice—the vaccine had to be made and distributed. Doing so, along with other protective steps, prevented millions of cases of H1N1 influenza and thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. H1N1 did kill, including infants, young adults and pregnant women. The virus continues to circulate as does the more deadly but less contagious H5N1. CDC is constantly on alert for new, deadly influenza viruses and other airborne diseases.

Partnerships support CDC's work

The CDC Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund helps CDC respond to public health emergencies and, when needed, allows CDC experts on the frontlines of an emergency to immediately purchase the specialized equipment or services needed to get the job done.

Learn more about how the Emergency Response Fund was activated during the H1N1 Flu outbreak.

Learn more

Meet CDC's Anne Schuchat, a real-life virus hunter stopping deadly disease in its tracks What keeps disease detectives up at night? CDC talks Contagion in D.C.

Note: Contagion promotional images are courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.