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G force

Outbreak awareness via film

John Brownstein,  an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Boston.
John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Boston.Douglas Quagliaroli/Douglas Quagliaroli of Soultolig



John Brownstein 


An epidemiologist and assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Boston, Brownstein is gaining notice for a website he helped found that maps disease outbreaks around the world in real time. 



Q. Your website is now part of an awareness campaign tied to the release this week of the feature film “Contagion,’’ starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Laurence Fishburne. What made you want to connect the site to a mainstream movie?

A. The film takes an important look at the potential impact of a worst-case scenario - what the real risks are of an emerging disease where there’s an incredible amount of global connectivity. If something emerges in some remote part of the world and someone’s infected and they get on a plane, it can be around the world in less than 24 hours.


Q. Does a film like this make people more paranoid than they need to be about infectious diseases?

A. It definitely takes a worst-case scenario and plays to some people’s fears of infectious disease, but there’s an educational component to the film. There’s a fine line between education and scaring, and it does that well.

Q. What is the main goal of your website, HealthMap (www.healthmap.org)?

A. Within an hour of someone talking about a disease on the Web, it should end up in HealthMap. The idea is early detection means earlier response.

Q. Who uses this type of information besides epidemiologists?

A. Clinicians [interested in] improving their ability to diagnose. Travelers to know what risks they might encounter. Concerned citizens and parents to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods.

Q. Has the site had an impact on any disease outbreaks around the world?

A. The cholera outbreak in Haiti. Immediately, when there were signs of a couple of cases, we were able to enact our team to develop a specialized map of the cholera. We provided a round-the-clock description of how the outbreak was emerging, linking that information to clean water sources, to health care facilities, to citizens on the ground.


Q. Do people ever try to misuse the site by submitting false information?

A. People send some great photos, that’s for sure. People in costumes, general oddities. If someone wanted to submit a [picture of a] rash or sore, that’s fine, but that’s not what we get.

Q. What is your ultimate vision for the site?

A. 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?’’

Q. And once they have that information, what should they do with it?

A. It depends on the disease, of course, but general, basic public health practices are always effective. Hand-washing regularly. Sneezing properly [into your elbow, not into your hands]. Making sure you don’t go to work when you’re obviously shedding virus. These are all good things to practice.

Q. Does all this focus on diseases make you paranoid yourself?

A. I have a good respect for pathogens. I’m not a hypochondriac. I also believe getting sick does help you in many ways down the road.

But there’s no reason to put yourself in harm’s way. Hopefully, the movie will help people find the right balance.

Q. Information is power?

A. People understanding the risk are going to do a better job of protecting themselves and their families.

Q. You made your movie debut as an extra in the film, right?

A. I went on the set for the last day of shooting. You can see me getting a vaccine. I have a passion for film, so this is very exciting.



Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com. Follow her on Twitter @kweintraub.