“Yes, my character is based on Anne Schuchat.”
If you’ve seen—or plan to see—Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and wonder if the storyline could really play out that way in real life, leaders at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention had a clear answer last week: it could.
At a panel discussion sponsored by the CDC Foundation, Dr. Thomas Frieden and Rear Adms. Anne Schuchat and Aly Khan (also physicians) of the Atlanta-based CDC talked about the agency and the work of its Epidemic Intelligence Service, which provides a two-year, post-graduate training program in applied epidemiology (the study of health-related events to control diseases and other health problems) that is featured in the film. More than 3,000 EIS officers—including Frieden, Schuchat and Khan—have responded to requests for help within the U.S. and throughout the world since 1951.
Schuchat—who is the basis for Kate Winslet’s character in the movie—said that more than 50 EIS officers, or “disease detectives,” are recruited each year for the hands-on training experience. “It’s probably the two best years of your life if you’re in the public health,” she said, “and a chance to help state and local health departments or work around the world and at CDC in Atlanta on applied, practical problem-solving.” As an EIS officer years ago, Schuchat was sent to Costa Rica to investigate why babies were dying of a mysterious meningitis. EIS officers discovered the babies were being washed in baby oil that was contaminated with bacteria.
As for the movie, it was clear that Schuchat, Khan and Frieden would give it a thumbs-up. (Frieden noted that, as a government official, he couldn’t endorse it, but “you’re missing out” if you don’t see it.)
And Schuchat said it was beyond her expectations to spend an hour with Academy Award-winner Winslet and some of the movie’s producers to discuss her own personal hair and makeup routine. “So when you see the movie, you will understand that she took my advice: no makeup, no hair routine,” Schuchat said. “Her wardrobe essentially is my wardrobe other than my uniform,” she added. “So this is not a glamorous part that she took, and I think it’s doing a lot more for my career than hers.”
Kate Winslet looked to Schuchat, inset, for inspiration for her role in “Contagion” as an epidemiologist.