I’ve been watching with some amusement the commercial previews for the upcoming television movie Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America. Not because it’s a comedy or because I find pandemics amusing, but because it would probably be more terrifying than its producers intend if anyone was really paying attention. Now, experts are worried that the movie may spur panic.
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.
… “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.
Well the movie may be fiction, but there are some facts that could make it much more terrifying, and justifiably so. But it’s unlikely that one of the most terrifying realities of a potential bird flu disaster will even be portrayed in the TV movie version.
It’s unlikely because, though I haven’t seen the script, I’m sure no one’s playing the role of Stewart Simonson. There probably isn’t a Stewart Simonson character in the script, but there should be. I blogged about Simonson last year, when the deplorable government response to the Katrina aftermath was all over the news, and bird flu outbreaks in places like Turkey were raising concerns here in the states.
Who is Stewart Simonson? A Bush administration hack of the highest order.
According to his official biography, Stewart Simonson is the Health and Human Services Department’s point man “on matters related to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.” Hopefully, he has taken crash courses on smallpox and avian flu, because, prior to joining HHS in 2001, Simonson’s background was not in public health, but … public transit. He’d previously been a top official at the delay-plagued, money-hemorrhaging passenger rail company Amtrak. Before that, he was an adviser to Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, specializing in crime and prison policy. When Thompson became HHS secretary in 2001, he hired Simonson as a legal adviser and promoted him to his current post shortly before leaving the Department last year. Simonson’s biography boasts that he “supervised policy development for Project BioShield,” a program designed to speed the manufacture of crucial vaccines and antidotes. “That effort, however, has by most accounts bogged down and shown few results,” The Washington Post reported last month.
See anything about public health in there? Any reason he should be the guy that stands between us and an avian flu outbreak, other than his loyalty to Tommy Thomspon and the Bush administration?
I’ll say it again. If we do have an avian flu outbreak, Stuart Simonson is all set to be the next Michael Brown. And if Fatal Contact does feature a Simonson-Brown character as a government appointee in charge of responding to a public health disaster he has neither the experience or education to deal with, maybe it should cause people to panic. Because it’ll be closer to reality than anyone would like to imagine.