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April 20, 2014

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How would Las Vegas fare in a ‘Contagion’-like outbreak?

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Kristian Hammerstad

Should an outbreak occur, Dr. Dennis Pirages believes Las Vegas has one of the most difficult situations to deal with.

In the middle of Contagion, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) addresses a room full of suited, Midwestern skeptics: “The average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute. In between that we’re touching doorknobs, water fountains and each other.”

Shiver. The words are meant to scare reluctant health department officials who are too busy worrying about bad press and the shopping season to care that an infectious disease no one’s ever seen is preparing to plow through cities across the globe. Sitting in the theater, I consciously place my hands in my lap and will them to stay there. Who knows how much stuff I’ve touched since the last time I gave my paws a run under soap and water.

Of course, one of the things I hadn’t touched was a person infected with some vicious pig-bat combo flu eager to wreak havoc on my insides. But the movie got me thinking, How would Las Vegas handle a Contagion-style scenario?

As scary as the movie is (Hazmat suits! Mass graves!), speaking with Nancy Gerken is even scarier.

“I thought a lot of it was very, very accurate,” Gerken, a training officer at the Southern Nevada Health District’s Office of Public Health Preparedness, tells me over the phone. “What I liked is that that really is possible. That really can happen.”

And it does. While Gerken has never experienced the kind of mass destruction depicted in the film, she says pandemics are more common than people think.

“People don’t realize that we have disease spreading all the time,” says SNHD Senior Epidemiologist Brian Labus. “Outbreaks are actually pretty common. We have them in classrooms and in work spaces. We see things like influenza and respiratory diseases and Norovirus, which is better known as the stomach flu. I don’t think people realize that the public health system is here to find these things and solve them before they become a huge problem.”

To do so, Labus and his coworkers engage in what they call “disease surveillance,” monitoring the different afflictions that pop up in the Vegas Valley with laboratory testing and reporting from local health care providers. Still, Contagion didn’t make my skin crawl because I was worried about spending a few days with a tummy ache. Its star virus was imported from Asia, easily spread and often lethal, three characteristics that should make Las Vegans shudder or at least grab some hand sanitizer.

For a number of reasons, Las Vegas is an ideal place for infectious diseases to spread. “First of all, you have a collection of people from around the world coming and going. It only takes 24 hours for a disease to spread from Southern Europe to Las Vegas,” says Dr. Dennis Pirages, a UNLV professor who teaches political science and studies globalization and pandemics. “The chances would be very high that if there were a pandemic breaking out somewhere in the world, it wouldn’t take too long for it to arrive here.”

And once it touched down in the Valley, an infectious disease could do some serious damage.

“We’re different than the rest of the world simply in that we have so many people in town and we don’t have the facilities to evacuate [like a passenger railroad]. … We are one of the places in the industrial world that has the most difficult situations to deal with,” Pirages adds. “I hate to think of a poker chip as a wonderful way to pass a virus but ...”

Of course, most viral outbreaks don’t threaten to wipe out millions from Hong Kong to Chicago or to end Gwyneth Paltrow’s life in ugly convulsions. The good-old flu is responsible for an economic cost of $10 billion per year in the United States alone, and the best ways to protect yourself from spreading or contracting an infectious disease are also the easiest.

“Wash your hands. Cover your cough. Stay home if you’re sick,” says Gerken. “I just hope people come away from [Contagion] with some awareness, with some understanding that maybe this could happen here. I don’t know if it will happen. I guess only time will tell.”

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