Infectious Diseases

Infectious Diseases in Movies: What They Get Wrong and Right

Author Kimberly Hazel , 09-Sep-2022

There’s no shortage of infectious disease movies out there. In fact, you could probably make a pretty good list of them. But which are the best? And what do they get right (and wrong) about infectious diseases? Let’s look at some of the most famous infectious disease movies and see how they stack up.

Calling All Contagion Fans


We’ll start with one of the most recent and popular infectious disease movies: Contagion. This movie, starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow, is about a deadly virus spreading worldwide. The Hollywood thriller, released in 2011, grossed 135 million dollars worldwide. The movie tells the story of a global outbreak of a deadly virus and the race to find a cure. Although the film is fiction, it is based on real-world viruses and events. The movie does a pretty good job of depicting how quickly a virus can spread and how easily it can cause panic. It also highlights some ways that public health officials try to contain an outbreak. 

While some critics praised the film for its accuracy, others criticized it for its portrayal of certain aspects of infectious disease outbreaks and investigations. So, what does contagion get right and wrong about these sensitive topics?

First, the film presents a plausible series of events based on what we know about how viruses can jump from animals to humans; these types of diseases are known as zoonotic diseases. When an outbreak is suspected in the movie, the CDC dispatches investigators from the Epidemic Intelligence Service to outbreak areas to try to identify people with this new infectious disease, and it sets in motion disease control protocols to stem the outbreak tide.

However, there are some inaccuracies in contagion regarding the speed of transmission and some of the pathways shown. For example, the film hints that on the day Paltrow contracts the virus, she visits a casino, blows on dice, and touches a bowl of nuts, which become fomites that spread the virus. It’s unlikely that Paltrow would become infected and spread an illness quite as quickly as the film portrays.

If we think about COVID (everyone’s favorite infectious disease), the average time before transmission typically can occur is about 5-6 days. Influenza or intestinal infections have the shortest incubation periods of infectious diseases, and yet still, a one-day turnaround from infection to transmission to others is more uncommon than not. Aside from that, the way the disease is represented in the movie, transmission via fomite is less likely than other disease transmissions. While it is possible for viruses to be spread via fomites, Paltrow is more likely to contract the virus we see in the film through direct contact with an infected person.

Also, we love the mention of the Ro (r-naught) and PPE (personal protective equipment) used by public health professionals but let’s not get started on the representation of the vaccine development in the film.

Overall, contagion offers a realistic portrayal of how an infectious disease could spread globally and highlights the importance of public health measures like vaccination and handwashing. Although there are some inaccuracies, these are mostly minor details that do not take away from the film’s overall message.


Hello Hot Zone


There are also several movies and TV Shows about Ebola. One of them, The Hot Zone, is based on a true story. It is a show based on the best-selling novel by Richard Preston, chronicling the true story of the Ebola virus and its arrival on American soil in 1989.  The book is considered one of the most accurate portrayals of the disease and the investigation process. 

The Hot Zone book was released in 1994, and the movie follows the book closely, but there are some differences. The book is more detailed and technical, while the movie is more focused on the human story. The book does a good job of explaining the science behind the disease and the investigation. It also provides a lot of background information on the outbreak.

The show, however, is more focused on human drama. It doesn’t go into as much detail about the science, but it provides a more personal look at what it was like for those affected by the outbreak. While the show is mostly accurate in its portrayal of events, there are some inaccuracies that are worth noting.

The show does a good job of depicting the symptoms of Ebola and how easily it can spread. However, it also gets some things wrong. For example, people infected with Ebola start bleeding from their eyes, which is not a typical symptom of Ebola. Additionally, the show depicts public health officials as heavily reliant on military support during their investigation when the CDC was the lead agency involved. 

This isn’t the only piece Hollywood has made based on Ebola, either.


On The Movie Outbreak


According to many public health professionals, the 1995 movie “Outbreak” is the least accurate portrayal of an infectious disease outbreak and investigation in recent film history. This movie, starring Dustin Hoffman, is an action movie filled with explosions about a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out an entire town. It tells the story of a semi-fictional disease (a form of hemorrhagic fever whose symptoms are very similar to Ebola) that breaks out in a small California town.

While the movie does a good job of depicting the panic and chaos that can accompany an outbreak, it is not so accurate regarding the details of disease control and containment. For instance, in one scene, medical personnel are shown changing in and out of protective gear without properly washing their hands. This would never happen in real life, as even a small mistake like this could spread the diseaseIn addition, the movie portrays the CDC as bureaucrats who are more interested in protecting their careers than saving lives. In reality, the CDC is comprised of highly trained professionals who are dedicated to stopping outbreaks before they start.

It also represents the outbreak investigation as a chaotic scenario where everyone is running around, where actual outbreak investigations are usually more coordinated. Investigations done by public health professionals tend to be very organized and calm while they follow strict protocols and policies. Not to mention that in the movie, people who are infected with the virus turn into zombie-like creatures.

So, while “Outbreak” may not be the most accurate portrayal of an infectious disease outbreak, it is still an entertaining movie highlighting some of the challenges in managing such a crisis. 


What About World War Z & Other Zombie Movies?


World War Z is a zombie thriller based on the 2006 novel of the same name, and it grossed over 500 million dollars worldwide. The movie follows former United Nations employee Gerry Lane as he tries to stop a pandemic that has spread worldwide.  Like many other movies, the virus in the movie is similar to Ebola, but it turns people into zombies.

While “World War Z” is not, by any means, a perfect portrayal of an infectious disease outbreak, it does get some things right. For example, the movie correctly depicts how easily a disease can spread through contact with infected bodily fluids. It also accurately portrays the challenges of trying to contain an outbreak and the importance of quarantine during an infectious disease outbreak. However, the film’s depiction of the virus causing people to become zombie-like creatures is not based on reality, of course.

It also gets some other things wrong. For instance, Lane is shown injecting his vein with a needle full of what he believes is a vaccine in one scene. Usually, vaccines are administered orally, intranasally, subcutaneously, or intramuscularly, which is to say they can be pills, sprays, or injections to skin or muscle but not veins.  So overall, while World War Z may not be completely accurate, it does provide some insights into the challenges of infectious disease control and containment while being a fun, gory zombie flick. 

So, whether you’re a fan of zombie movies or not so much, they can provide some insights into what a real-life outbreak might look like and the challenges of managing them. So, the next time you watch a zombie movie, consider what it might be trying to teach you about the real-world threat of infectious diseases in between the brain-eating scenes.


More Movies


Of course, the list of infectious disease movies goes on and on, especially if you count zombie movies. Here are some honorable mentions:

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  • The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  • Day of the Dead (1985)
  • 12 Monkeys (1995)
  • Virus (1999)
  • 28 Days Later (2002)
  • I Am Legend (2007)
  • 28 Weeks Later (2007)
  • Quarantine (2008)
  • Pontypool (2008)
  • Pandemic (2016)


If you’re watching any of these and wondering what is based on fact and what is pure fiction, then you could use GIDEON to learn more about infectious diseases.

Kimberly Hazel

Articles you won’t delete.
Delivered to your inbox weekly.