Contagion Shines a Spotlight on the Work of Epidemiologists

Disease Detectives Stand Between You and Contagion

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It starts with fatigue and then leads to a seizure. Two days later, you're dead. That's the chilling premise of the new hit movie Contagion. It explores the idea of an airborne virus that spreads worldwide as the death tolls reaches into the millions. Even more disturbing is the assertion by scientists that the movie is more reality than fantasy.

Contagion: Focusing on reality

Although movies regarding epidemics of global proportion are nothing new, Contagion appears to break ground as one of the first to insist on scientific accuracy. Among the film's consultants were Laurie Garrett, an infectious disease reporter, and W. Ian Lipkin, a neurologist and epidemiologist at Columbia University. In addition, CDC Director Thomas Frieden told the The Atlantic that CDC personnel also served as advisers to the filmmakers and actors.

In the movie, Kate Winslet plays a member of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service, which rushes to find a treatment for the deadly disease. The EIS is a real-life division and employs 160 physicians, scientists, veterinarians, dentists and nurses. Those familiar with the EIS say the movie did a good job representing the realities of the agency.

"It seemed to do a pretty credible job of depicting what an EIS officer would do in the field," Douglas Hamilton, head of the EIS, told The Washington Post. "With this movie, I was impressed that they really spent time learning about the science. It really had a significant scientific credibility."

To create that credibility, Garrett says the movie went through 30 drafts. In an interview with The Washington Post, she and Lipkin agreed filmmakers were open to their suggestions and wanted to create a film based upon the realities of infectious disease.

"The 'Contagionists' were committed to getting it right," said Lipkin. "There were only a few instances where I might have made other choices--however, none of the choices were poor choices."

The film's insistence on realism seems to be paying off at the box office. Contagion was the nation's number one film in its opening week--grossing $22.4 million in ticket sales. What's more, it has received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. After its first week, critic ratings were 84 percent positive, according to the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.

Disease detectives solve medical mysteries

It isn't surprising that Contagion has renewed interest in careers revolving around infectious diseases. The CDC even created a website in response to Contagion that provides detailed information regarding these so-called disease detectives. According to the CDC, disease detectives are professionals who work to discover the root of medical problems. They may address a localized outbreak of diseases such as the measles or address global issues such as the H1N1 influenza virus.

While disease detectives can include physicians and laboratory scientists, epidemiologists are the most specialized occupation in the field of infectious disease investigation and control. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports epidemiologists can be separated into two types: applied and research.

Applied epidemiologists are employed by state and federal health agencies. They are the professionals who work within the CDC and other organizations to respond to disease outbreaks and help contain them. Research epidemiologists study diseases in laboratories as well as in the field to prevent future outbreaks.

Becoming an epidemiologist

Like other medical science careers, epidemiologists require an advanced degree. The BLS indicates applied epidemiologists should have a master's degree in public health. Research epidemiologists may need a doctoral degree or a medical degree depending on the focus of their work.

State and local governments are the largest employers of epidemiologists, and the mean annual wage for these professionals was $68,280 in 2010 according to BLS data. In his interview with The Washington Post, the CDC's Hamilton noted his EIS officers earn average annual incomes of $75,000, which is less than they might earn in the private sector. EIS officers also must go through a two year post-doctoral fellowship in applied public health in epidemiology to qualify for these elite positions.

However, for others interested in the field, a master's degree in public health may be the most accessible way to find work as an epidemiologist. Fueled by the popularity of movies such as Contagion, interest in epidemiology isn't the only thing expected to grow. Job openings in this field are expected to expand 15 percent from 2008-2018 according to BLS estimates.