Can The Effects Of ‘Contagion’ Be Catching?

Some people feel the urge to go out and buy a gun. Some can be seen washing and drying their hands very, very carefully as they exit the cinema restroom. Personally, I experienced a fleeting impulse to wrap my whole house in plastic and allow no one in or out.

The hot new pandemic thriller Contagion, which topped the box office receipts this weekend according to, elicits widely varying reactions. (Another of mine was a wash of irrational shame because the blogger played by Jude Law is a repulsive villain.) But beyond the personal, there is actually a prescribed effect that the film’s makers hope to have: the willingness to participate more actively in efforts to monitor public health.

Though it is not featured on-screen, “Contagion” has a Website here that invites you to join its social media campaign aimed at raising awareness about potential pandemics. Featured in the campaign is HealthMap, a 5-year-old disease-tracking project led by Children’s Hospital Boston researchers. It can compile early reports of illness ranging from official stories and media articles to people’s own accounts.

It does my heart good to see Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon and Kate Winslet helping send publicity HealthMap’s way. Loyal CommonHealth readers may recall that we featured a Massachusetts chunk of HealthMap here for a while, thinking we could serve as a venue for early warnings of outbreaks, but public participation remained low. Perhaps Contagion will fan public interest. I continue to think HealthMap is a brilliant idea: Crowdsource the reporting of illness so we can all serve as each other’s early warning systems. Maybe after seeing Contagion, more people will agree. It’s surely better than buying a gun.

Karen Weintraub has an excellent interview in the Globe today here with John Brownstein, a leading whiz behind HealthMap. His ultimate vision for HealthMap, he tells her, is: “We want to make people care about ‘What diseases are cycling around my social network?’ just as much as ‘What are the chances it’s going to rain today?'” I don’t know about you, but I’m already there.

Stay tuned for further experiments like HealthMap; Dr. Mark Smolinski, a technical adviser to Contagion, says there are plans to launch an experiment in October to “really see whether we can move the needle further, in our ability to detect threats by having people be part of the public health surveillance system.”

As the Contagion Website asks, are you ready?


Stomach Flu At BU: We Report It On HealthMap

Normally, we wouldn’t make it a news item that there’s an uptick of vomiting and diarrhea at Boston University, centered at Warren Towers.

But it seemed like that information from the BU Student Health Services could serve as a good example for how we can all use HealthMap, the new sickness-tracking service that is a joint project between CommonHealth and Children’s Hospital Boston.

The BU health service writes that “It seems most likely that this does not represent a food-borne illness. The clinical presentation is possibly consistent with Norovirus. Gastrointestinal illnesses can be caused by viruses and/or bacteria (among other things). Both of these causes are contagious.”

So here’s what I did. I went a little ways down the right-hand bar of CommonHealth, and clicked on the HealthMap picture. At the lower left, I clicked on “Post a Report.” Then on “Provide an eyewitness report.” For a headline, I wrote “Possible Norovirus at Boston University’s Warren Towers.” I clicked on Norovirus from the drop-down menu of diseases, wrote “Boston University” for the location, gave my email and for the description, wrote “vomiting and diarrhea among students.” Clicked submit and was told “Thank you for your report!” Because it comes from a non-official source, it will take a day or so to be vetted, but then should appear on the map.

Why bother? Well, wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for you? And when you know that something is going around, that gives you the chance to up your prevention efforts, or if you do catch it, to be prepared with knowledge about treatments. For example, at B.U., the Health Service reported:

Prevention is key in such situations.

* Wash your hands frequently, particularly after using the bathroom and before eating or preparing food.
* Avoid those who are ill, if possible.
* Clean high touch surfaces in your room with anti-bacterial cleaner (Clorox wipes).

For the past two days, custodial staff has increased cleaning efforts in residence halls around campus, particularly in Warren Towers. We have also implemented increased infection control measures in the dining halls.

Introducing HealthMap: Tracking The Germs In Your Neighborhood

Are chills and fever rampaging through your office? Have three of your neighbors reported rabid bats lately? Is half your child’s grade out with the stomach flu? Now you can check the most local of health news online, and post reports that help others do the same.

This week, CommonHealth introduces the Massachusetts HealthMap, a disease-tracking tool overseen by researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston with input from public health trackers, the media and you. We tend to rely on word of mouth to find out important community health news, but HealthMap offers an alternative way to get and transmit information that you might otherwise miss. It’s a non-commercial project that tracks public health outbreaks and gathers reports from official sources, including the Department of Public Health, and the media, and updates them hourly. Reports from the public are curated and updated once a day.

We’re still in beta mode, but please check it out and tell us what kind of “outbreak” — large or small — is going on in your world. To post a report, all you do is click on “Outbreak Missing” and we ask that you be as specific as possible. Your identity will not be published, but you may be contacted by a health professional to confirm details.