In an opinion piece published September 12, 2011 in the New York Times, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist and Columbia University professor, stressed the real possibility of widespread outbreaks of infectious diseases like the virus at the center of the recently-released film, “Contagion.” Dr. Lipkin pointed out that our vulnerability to new infectious diseases has grown alongside increased international travel and the expansion of worldwide food production. He also emphasized the need to provide better support to a national health system that is “under-financed and overwhelmed.”
Dr. Larry Madoff, Director of the Division of Epidemiology and Immunization at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, agreed, stating in The Atlantic that public health agencies become invisible when they’re doing their job well, and “this invisibility undermines [their] support.” Such support could lead to fine-tuned and inexpensive diagnostic tests, along with updated methods of designing and distributing vaccines. Lipkin further noted the importance of communication within the government and coordination with international agencies, and the necessity to promote effective data sharing.
Though Dr. Lipkin’s and Dr. Madoff’s entreaties follow their and other experts’ concession that emergency scenarios like the one played out in “Contagion” are realistic, their words apply also to the less dramatic realities of public health. Legionnaires’ disease, for example, is a bacterial infection which is often mistaken for pneumonia, generating an impression of rareness; but Legionnaires’ disease is not especially rare, just under-diagnosed. If better diagnostic tests can be developed, per Dr. Lipkin’s suggestion, and if more cases of Legionnaires’ disease can be properly diagnosed and reported, then responses to outbreaks of legionellosis can be improved and damages mitigated. Legionnaires’ disease, after all, was once a mysterious illness that seemed to appear from nowhere, sickening over 200 people and killing 34 before its source was finally discovered. Improvements in medical technologies and methods shouldn’t arise from a fear of what might happen, but rather from an understanding of – and a desire to change – unacceptable realities that are happening.