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'Contagion': CDC Basks In Hollywood's Admiring Take On Disease Detectives

It's not often that a federal health agency gets to toot its horn about its portrayal in a Hollywood thriller. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took full advantage of the opportunity Tuesday, on the heels of the release of Contagion, a feature film about a deadly global pandemic and the public health workers who try to stop it.

The panel, sponsored by the nonprofit CDC Foundation, reinforced the idea that epidemiology is exciting, if often unsung, and is worthy of Hollywood's attention. It was also an opportunity for CDC officials to talk about how they prevent real-life deadly disease outbreaks, but how that's getting harder to do.

In the 2012 budget bill signed in February, the CDC suffered $1.3 billion in cuts, which officials say has lead to an erosion in public health infrastructure.

"The world is a very, very dangerous place," said Ali Khan, assistant surgeon general and director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at CDC, who sat on the panel. "We need the CDC there, and it's not just about disasters. It's about everyday public health."

The CDC officials, including director Dr. Thomas Frieden, were careful to note that the film's scenario, in which a billion people are infected with a new virus, was designed for entertainment purposes. Still, they said they saw it as one plausible worst-case scenario. "We can't know what's going to happen," said Frieden.

The CDC's darling in the film is Kate Winslet who plays Dr. Erin Mears, a disease detective in the CDC's elite Epidemic Intelligence Service who is dispatched to track the outbreak.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the petite, salt-and-pepper-haired director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, says Winslet's character was modeled on her career, and particularly her experience tracking SARS in China in 2003. (Schuchat is also well-known for leading CDC's response to the H1N1 outbreak.) Winslet even consulted Schuchat on makeup and wardrobe tips, but "I don't wear much make up ... so it wasn't a glamorous part for her," Schuchat said.

The CDC's excitement aside, two NPR film critics liked the film — Jeannette Catsoulis, for one, called it "an engrossing, believable search for patient zero and an effective vaccine."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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