May 8, 2006

Experts fear bird flu movie may spur panic

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A film about a fictional bird flu
pandemic that will air on television on Tuesday has experts
worried it will panic some people and convince others that
legitimate warnings are mere hype.

But the same experts are taking advantage of publicity
surrounding the made-for-television movie to stress what they
see as the need for individuals, businesses and local officials
to do what they can to prepare.

The Health and Human Services Department issued "talking
points" to staff who may get questions about the movie,
Pennsylvania is rolling out a new Web site and telephone line
to coincide with the release, and the Trust for America's
Health held a briefing to try to sort fact from fiction.

"Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America" features scenes with
actors wearing spacesuit-like protective gear, a terrified
populace and an ending scene in which most residents of an
African village lie dead.

"I am not happy," said Mike Osterholm, a University of
Minnesota public health expert who has been warning about and
consulting on the threat of an influenza pandemic.

"I worry that this could very well be portrayed by many as
ultimate example of sensationalism," Osterholm told reporters
in a telephone briefing on Monday.

The H5N1 avian flu virus has been found in birds in more
than 48 countries. It has killed 115 people out of 207 sick
enough to be treated at hospitals.

Bird flu only rarely infects people now, but scientists
agree it could evolve into a form that transmits directly from
person to person. If it did, it could infect hundreds of
million of people within a few weeks or months.


Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has
been holding meetings in the 50 states and territories to
convince businesses, educators and individuals to prepare for a
pandemic that could throw 40 percent of the workforce out of
action for weeks on end.

"While the movie does serve to raise awareness about avian
and pandemic flu, we hope it will inspire preparation -- not
panic," the HHS talking points read.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Calvin Johnson and state
Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff announced the launch of
their Web site,, to
coincide with the TV film.

"It is our hope that this movie will draw people to more
reliable sources for information such as the Department of
Health's 1-877-PA-HEALTH line and the Web site we've launched
today," Johnson said in a statement.

The entertainment industry does not have a pristine record
on medical matters. A Mayo Clinic neurologist reported on
Monday that motion pictures inaccurately represent the coma.

"Generally, there is a pattern of inaccuracy. It's an
enormous caricature," Dr. Eelco Wijdicks said in a statement.
Most films great exaggerate how often patients recover
completely from extended comas, Wijdicks said.

A film based on Richard Preston's novel "the Hot Zone"
similarly exaggerated the effects and spread of the Ebola