Contagion II: Zika Virus Pushes Us Into The Realm of Science Fiction

By Kathryn Lilley


Another year, another virus panic. Last year the news media were sounding the alarm bells about the Ebola virus. This year, we’re slowly ratcheting up toward a full-blown freak-out about the Zika virus. Compared to Ebola, Zika is a milder, gentler virus, but its implications for humanity may be much more serious.

ZIka virus, which is spread by mosquitos, causes a mild fever or rash in most people who become infected. Pregnant women who are exposed to Zika, however, can give birth to newborns suffering microcephaly–abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. There is no vaccine for Zika virus, and no reliable prevention method (except to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos).

US health officials recently advised women who are pregnant to avoid traveling to 22 countries where the virus is already circulating. The travel warnings include many popular tourist destinations: Mexico, Puerto Rico, parts of the Carribbean (Barbados, Martinique, Saint Martin), and most notably Brazil, where the summer Olympics are to be held. (Nearly 4,000 afflicted babies with malformed heads were born in Brazil in 2015, up from only 150 such births in 2014). According to the World Health Organization, Zika virus is expected to spread to every country in the Americas, except for Canada and Chile. Officials in some countries where Zika virus is present, such as El Salvador, have taken the drastic step of advising women to delay becoming pregnant until at least 2018.

Just don’t get pregnant, ladies. Really? If that’s how officials are responding to this health crisis, then I think we’ve crossed a line into an area known previously only in science fiction. Zika virus is like Contagion meets Children of Men. In Children of Men, the women of earth had  become infertile for some mysterious reason. The rest of the story was a thriller, with a group of people trying to protect the last remaining pregnant woman on earth from the clutches of an evil mob.

Regarding Zika virus, to paraphrase a line from Contagion: “We don’t need to weaponize the virus. The mosquitos are doing it.”


Meanwhile, I’m updating my list of medical thrillers to add to my TBR pile. Here are some medical thrillers I’ve already read, and recommend:

GRAY MATTER by Gary Braver (Highly intelligent children are being kidnapped and “harvested” for their brain tissue)

HARVEST, by Tess Gerritsen (another excellent thriller involving an organ harvesting plot)

THE HOT ZONE, Richard Preston (truth is scarier than fiction in this tale of virus hunters tracking down virulent viruses in the lab, and on the ground)

What else? What other medical thrillers should I add to my TBR pile?

14 thoughts on “Contagion II: Zika Virus Pushes Us Into The Realm of Science Fiction

    • I KNOW, right? I don’t think the Zika virus issue has landed on most people’s radar yet. It’s right on our doorstep (cases have already been reported in some US states among returning travelers, although there’s no evidence yet that the virus is “circulating” in mosquitos here). Imagine the reaction in the US if women here were blithely advised simply to put off getting pregnant until 2018.

  1. I’m assuming you’ve read ’em already, BUT I think Michael Crichton’s ANDROMEDA STRAIN, one of the first “contagion thrillers” still holds up.

    In the same way, the first half of Stephen King’s THE STAND does a great job of telling the story of contagion run amok…

    However, I’m looking for anything else anybody else might suggest to infect my TBR list…


    • Absolutely, those are great classics of the genre, George, loved them both! Also COMA, which was the first medical thriller I ever read. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Wish you could add my novel, BEYOND THE SCOPE, but it’s still at the developmental editor. Lots of villains–the boss, the CIA, the arms dealer–want to sabotage my protagonist, but the dastardly mosquito out-evils them all. Maybe this would be a good year to publish.

    • Good luck with your book launch, Nancy–this is definitely shaping up to be the Year of the Mosquito!

  3. I’d have to nominate Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island.” Not technically a “medical” thriller but still deals with mental illness. And a vote for one of the best books I’ve read in years: “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel wherein a common virus wipes out 90% of the earth’s population. But that’s more an apocalyptic sci-fi novel, more concerned with survival aftermath.

    Can I nominate a movie? The deeply creepy “Jacobs Ladder” (starring a very young Tim Robbins) which deals with Vietnam vet’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” It gave me nightmares…

  4. Jacob’s Ladder was an incredibly disturbing movie, you’re right, Kris. It got right to the heart of a timeless source of anxiety–how will we actually experience the moment of death?

    • Yup…and I just realized, it has an unreliable narrator. I am prepping for a panel on that subject so I am looking for good examples.

      • My absolute favorite type of narrator, the unreliable one! Especially in paranormal stories–I can’t stand vampire, zombie, and similar in-your-face monster stories. Love it when there’s uncertainty about the narrator’s state of mind. Is what she’s seeing ‘real,’ or not? I wish there were more narrators like that in the current paranormal genre. In other genre fiction, GONE, GIRL would be one example. In classic literature, I like the lack of certainty of judgement shown by the narrators of THE GREAT GATSBY, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and LOLITA.

        • My only complaint about the movie version of Shutter’s Island was that it was so clear from the first frame that the main character was deranged, perhaps because we’ve seen too many films with a similar reveal. The device worked well for me in THE SIXTH SENSE, although even in that one, I was looking for clues indicating whether the Willis character was still alive.

  5. Related to this, I read this morning how the pentagon has recently been urged to be ready for a Chinese/Russian co-attack against our military satellites that would open the door for them to potentially defeat our satellite dependant military. Which happens to be a major premise my new series. First thought: Did one of my beta-readers show my stuff to the Chiefs of Staff?

    • Interesting. If that happened, wouldn’t we take down THEIR satellites in response, followed up by a cyber attack and
      EMP bomb chaser for good measure? I think we’re still way better than others are at that sort of thing, though we minimize public discussion our capability in those ares. I’m actually more concerned about what THIS country will do if we really got riled. We’ve been fighting most current conflicts in such a limited, constrained way, it’s hardly worth measuring. If we ever get riled enough again to engage full out (as in WWI, WWII,), Katie, bar the door.

      • I thought about that a lot as I wrote. Based on my experience in IT, in the case of computer/technology related strikes he who strikes first and hard clears the field. In earlier wars we were not completely dependent on technology. For the past 30 years we’ve grown increasingly dependent on technology to the point where basic navigation (on both land and sea) relies on explicitly on satellite GPS systems. There are no more hard lines run between field comms, everything is cellular or sattelite comms. If one side strikes first and knocks out the enemies fast communications and navigation capability, but retains their own, things could turn really dismal fast. Another thing to consider is that the US has not been invaded since 1812. We’ve got no experience of being the subject of mass civilian casualties among our own as such a war would be today.
        At least…that’s the conclusion I came to for my series. We’ll see what real life brings some day.

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