Opinions

Diseases Reel and Real

Imagine mass hysteria, conspiracies, self-serving power brokers and some everyday persons singled out for outbursts of heroism while defying the odds against their lives. Meanwhile, the world waited to be saved, as faceless and hapless unknowns in the crowd kept dropping dead.

This is no underdog tale where a downtrodden character or ingénue rose up against the corrupt empire, not exactly. Nor is the threat some evil overlord/alien intent on world or intergalactic domination. Today’s topic is, at heart, an utterly instinctive and ordinary pursuit of health.

 

But, if the rather sizable subgenre of medical thriller or epidemic movies is to be believed, humanity’s quest to stay hale and hearty is one high-octane plot driver. Makes for great melodrama too!

Gamgi, a 2013 South Korean epidemic thriller tells of a new strain of Avian flu that was brought to the country by a group of illegal immigrant. All had died in the shipping container they were hidden in, except for one who just happened to bear the antibody which could be made into a vaccine!

Happy coincidence aside, he was still a disease carrier and the illegality of his existence was a great motivation for a free run all over the city, leading to the liberal dispensing of the flu bug. The cat-and-mouse chase was not even half the story, with the narrative passed to a mother who defied even the military – called in to herd the population into a quarantine camp where infected bodies, whether dead or alive, were incinerated – to reunite with her recovering little girl. And of course, a mention should be made regarding the bureaucrats who argued over the ethicality of wiping out the entire city before world-wide devastation could occur.

The movie did get a happy ending – the vaccine was found, big guns set aside, family on holiday and the world at peace once more. Very fortunate.

The poster for ‘Gamgi’, known as ‘Flu’ in English.
The poster for ‘Gamgi’, known as ‘Flu’ in English.

As awesome as mass entertainment is capable of capturing that inarguably real and human fight for survival against a microbial killer, one might like to identify the line between science fiction and facts.

2011’s Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring several notable names such as Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, certainly went for medical authenticity.

The movie unravels what happened when a contagious disease, carried by someone who had arrived from overseas, was unleased upon an urban city. Scriptwriter, Scott Z. Burns, consulted communicable disease specialists to understand how a pandemic situation would develop. Kate Winslet, who played one of the doctors, actually visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia to gain insight into how real life researchers work to find vaccines. Other than the farfetched notion of Matt Damon’s character being naturally immune, those in the medical and scientific fields generally gave the thumbs-up for the film being realistic.

A rare phenomenon indeed!

The poster for 'Contagion', produced in 2011.
The poster for ‘Contagion’, produced in 2011.

Still, for this one shining example of restraint in creative license, there is a spread of films out there which tend towards the speculative or downright bizarre. Zombie virus, anyone? Or how about a 1924 movie The Last Man on Earth where a peculiarly misandrous epidemic wiped out the fertile men of earth, leaving the whole of womenfolk to scramble for the last one left.

Publicity visuals for 'The Last Man on Earth' movie from 1924.
Publicity visuals for ‘The Last Man on Earth’, a movie from 1924.

Nonetheless, the informative potential of mass entertainment should not be underestimated, even if it is merely philosophical epiphanies one might derive from epidemic-horror or harem fantasy.

We have Mary and Martha in 2013, a television movie directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Hillary Swank and Brenda Blethyn. In it, two mothers, one upper-class American and another, a British lost their sons to malaria in South Africa. Their tragedies prompted them to the anti-malaria cause.

True, Mary and Martha has been criticised for its Eurocentrism and exoticism. However, Noyce has been honest with his agenda of simply affecting the more comfortable white audience to the awareness of this particular disease. If his lead characters cannot seem to distinct between one South African country from another or that they were startled at how familiar the locals were with the trappings of Western culture even in today’s 21st century… well, let’s give a benefit of doubt that screenwriter Richard Curtis knew their target audience best and how to prod them into activism.

Indeed, propaganda abounds today, even if it is well-intentioned.

Mary & Martha
The publicity visuals for ‘Mary and Martha’, a movie shown on HBO and BBC.

Nonetheless, movies have done their part in spreading awareness if the curiosity of the audience is tickled towards what is real. The next step would be the diligence to check things up. And perhaps once in a while, someone might remain intrigued enough to dig into deeper seams of enquiry.

There is no dearth of resources to start the fact-finding, especially in the present Information Age. In addition, the perception of diseases as communicable agents unhindered by territorial limitations (which impact is greatly magnified due to the ease of travel today) has justified a global organisation of medical regulation and public education.

In this, there can be no higher institution than the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.), which has been rather lively during April with three campaigns held within the month, out of the seven for the whole year. There is the World Health Day on 7 April, World Malaria Day on 25 April and the World Immunisation Week for the entire final week.

The headquarters of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.

If the information above seems rather irrelevant to your immediate reality, I would start with the basic probing of ‘What is W.H.O?’ to ‘Do you know what the World Health Day is about?’

The W.H.O. is an extension of the United Nations (U.N.) and has constituted its global vision and service to “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health”. Yes, this is the organisation that Scott Z. Burns also consulted when crafting his Contagion script and a representative of which Marion Cotillard acted as in the film.

This U.N arm was set up on 7 April 1948 (which explains World Health Day) and celebrates its birthdays with a world-wide health problem to highlight for the year. And this year’s piñata happens to be vector-borne diseases; getting sick due to tiny flying buggers like mosquitoes, ticks and sandflies exchanging parasites or viruses with us for snacking on our blood.

Some varieties of mosquitoes are carriers for diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

The list of looming threats rolled out in 2014’s World Health Day report is long, with the top contender being malaria (which might explain the World Malaria Day).

Let’s see: malaria transmission occurs in 97 countries, putting about 3.4 billion people at risk; 40% of the world’s population or 2.5 billion people are now at risk from dengue; there have been outbreaks of chikungunya in recent decades in countries that have never recorded cases before (i.e. Europe, America and Carribean); yearly reports of around 200 000 cases of and 30 000 deaths from Yellow Fever; Japanese encephalitis is causing an estimated 50 000 cases and 10 000 deaths every year… and there is still leishmaniasis, chagas disease, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever to consider, all of which information can be downloaded at the WHO website.

Regrettably, the booklet does not specify how to pronounce the more elaborate names of these diseases.

One of the posters for World Health Day 2014.

W.H.O’s statement that “one sixth of the illness and disability suffered worldwide is due to vector-borne diseases” sounds properly pandemic, with the caveat that the “poorest segments of society and least-developed countries are most affected”.

At this point, immunisation using vaccines is the easy shout-out solution – which the Immunisation Week would extol – except for the depressing note that most of these vector-borne diseases, particularly the major ones, do not come with them.

That leaves us with the preventive measures of wearing long-sleeves clothing and insect repellent; sleeping in a safety net; having in-house and outdoors spraying; proper sanitation in handling of food, water and waste. Unsurprisingly, the greatest survival odds are found in having quick access to clean, efficient and adequate medical facilities.

A South African hospital which works with what limited resources it has.

By extension, it is difficult to miss that the prevalence of these vector-borne diseases are connected to issues of globalisation, urban development, deforestation, people displacement, poor housing, etcetera – basically the short end of the socio-economic stick. It might trigger some accidental cans of worms such as ‘How impoverished communities stay impoverished?’ and ‘Where does the money go?’

Dig at your own peril. Do note that these are the sorts of disagreeable questioning that would veer curious cats from easier talks of global health vexation and how it is featured in scintillating popular culture.

Summarily, as the frailty of the human race continues to be most safely attacked on screen, at least, word of the egregious microscopic dangers has penetrated the consciousness of our daily busyness. Hopefully, this awareness is able to make the transition into reliable knowledge and practical sympathy.

Otherwise, there remains the option of rerunning Mary and Martha on HBO and BBC. Perhaps it did during World Malaria Day.

Also read: Temple Run could turn into a movie; an actor running for 90 minutes and collecting coins?

 

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