Outbreak Response Dream Team: Pop Culture's Best Bets to Protect You in an Emergency

Dec 19, 2013, 12:22 PM


Picture this: The world just ended. Well, not completely. But things aren’t looking up. An influenza strain has cut a deadly swath through nearly every continent. Or maybe the Black Death is making a special encore appearance. Or your now-undead neighbor—Phil, normally a great guy, invited you to a dinner party just last week—is shuffling around the front yard, trying to gnaw on your brains.

The point is it’s time for action. And since we’re talking theoretical, we might as well be talking fictional, too. Below is NewPublicHealth’s “Outbreak Dream Team”—pop culture characters with the diverse skills we’d need to respond to and cure a deadly epidemic. And maybe a dose of what’s really needed in the way of a public health workforce to keep us ready for whatever could happen next.


  • In a nationwide (or global) public health emergency such as a pandemic, the President has to step up and provide leadership among different sectors and divisions of the government to coordinate a response and assure the nation of a secure path forward.

Laura Roslin, “Battlestar Galactica”

As a former Secretary of Education she has experience working with large groups with disparate goals. (Plus, she gets that education impacts health in so many ways). And as president of the roughly 50,000 humans left alive after a Cylon invasion wiped nearly everyone out, she’s adept at balancing public policy needs, working with everyone from public advocates to top military leaders. Some of her decisions are more-than-a-bit iffy, but you try pleasing everyone all the time when the last vestiges of humanity are spread across a fleet of ships drifting through space.

National Public Health Lead

  • Equivalent to the Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC safeguards the nation’s health by preparing for, detecting, rapidly responding to and preventing health threats 24/7 to save lives and protect communities. The director’s job is to make sure that happens.

Ann Perkins, “Parks & Recreation”

As a practicing public health nurse and the PR Director of Pawnee's Health Department, Ann Perkins has dealt with infectious disease control from a hospital, a government and even a girlfriend perspective. Smart and determined, this go-getter can not only treat the symptoms of infectious diseases, she can detect and track them, coordinate response, and educate the community—all while maintaining a confident, calm and collected public face. While Leslie Knope leads the town through the city council, Ann has the potential to lead diverse teams and bridge health and health care to coordinate a swift and decisive response. If she can take on Pawnee's obesity epidemic one candy company at a time and teach sex ed to senior citizens, she can certainly handle a national outbreak or two. Plus, she gets bonus points for being (probably) the only true public health character on television.


  • Responsible for managing external communication and keeping the public informed of developments

Olivia Pope, “Scandal”

For any big-time problem that doesn’t involve her actual social life, this is the communications expert you want by your side in a crisis. Pope is a fixer—she, along with a multi-skilled team (which includes a HIGHLY-TRAINED PSYCHOPATH TORTURER) she can call upon in a pinch, can get the right message out at the right time, all while making sure to lock down any misinformation that could only lead to large-scale trouble during a pandemic. Communicating through a public health crisis is critical.

Chief Public Health Lab Scientist

  • Responsible for conducting advanced laboratory testing of microbes and other potential disease vectors, as well as providing technical support to public health partners during the outbreak investigation

Gregory House, “House M.D.

Will the people directly reporting to him enjoy their work? Absolutely not. But the seemingly impossible will somehow be accomplished. This cynical, antisocial narcissist is the head of Diagnostic Medicine at the Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. And from the very start you can be assured it’s not lupus.


  • Physicians, hospitals and health care systems are critical partners for public health in identifying, treating and stopping the spread of disease.

Dana Scully, “The X-Files”

Another skeptic, so House will appreciate that. F.B.I. Agent and medical doctor Scully is partnered with Fox Mulder in his quest to explain the unexplainable—hopefully via aliens or monsters or something else that will keep you awake at night. She approaches even the most extreme scenarios with a critical, discerning eye. And she has those behind-the-scenes government connections that can be a major help during a serious outbreak.


Peter Benton, “ER”

A gifted doctor who’s not known for being warm and approachable, but another physician you can be sure would keep their head together in even the craziest crisis—he’s a veteran of a hospital environment where a helicopter once fell on an attending physician. The dedicated Benton worked his way up to Attending Trauma Surgeon at County General Hospital in Chicago, Illinois.

Lay Health Worker/Prevention Advocate

  • Responsible for bridging the divide between community members and health care services/public health, and educating the community about how to prepare for, prevent and respond to outbreaks and other public health emergencies

Dwight Schrute, “The Office”

We won’t call Dwight a community health worker because it might insult the field. On the other hand, though his home-grown prevention methods may be unpopular in the workplace, Dwight Schrute's proof is in the jello (along with his stapler)—he's never missed a day of work. He advocates a strict diet replete with beets (from Schrute farms, of course) to keep the immune system in tip-top shape. MYTH: Dwight approves of modern prevention methods such as hand sanitizer. FALSE: They can soften the body's natural defenses by causing antibacterial resistance. Also, bears.

Local Health Department Surveillance


Robert Neville, “I Am Legend”

Various versions have appeared in various films (such as Will Smith, above), but the original novel character is the best for our purposes. Neville’s a resident of suburban Los Angeles—and maybe the last human on earth—who spends his days scavenging for food and his nights barricaded in his house while vampires outside scream for his blood. Over time he teaches himself epidemiology, using the stacks and stacks of books at his local library to pinpoint the bacteria behind the pandemic. Just the sort of self-starter we’ll need.


  • Epidemiologists are responsible for analyzing the data to identify the source of the outbreak and how it spreads

Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park”

He’s the guy who explained to us all that “Life... uh... finds a way.” And he did this while facing down a dinosaur threat, so no concerns over his ability to keep a level head. Malcolm is a university mathematician who specializes in chaos theory—in other words, the sort of person you’d want in charge of your data to track down the source of an outbreak (though he could maybe use an Epi 101 course, if we’re being honest).

Vaccine Development


Professor John Nerdelbaum Frink, Jr., “The Simpsons”

The sort of scientific brilliance best kept in the lab. Frink is a mad scientist, but not an evil one. He loves inventing. He loves researching new and amazing problems. And, on the off chance a pandemic is caused by a Death Ray or Debigulator, he’s sure to have ideas on a solution—because he’s also invented the problem.

Vaccine Manufacturing and Distribution

  • Working with vaccine developlent expert, responsible for the actual manufacturing and distribution of the outbreak cure or any other related medications

Willy Wonka, “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory”

No doubt the Oompa Loompas could transition his massive candy factory into a massive vaccine development center overnight. And we already know his distribution system can send Golden Tickets all over the world, so no concerns over getting the vaccine to everyone who needs it. Plus you can never have enough child-like wonder and whimsy.

International Coordination Lead

  • Equivalent to the head of the World Health Organization, responsible for mobilizing and shepherding global response to the outbreak

Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter books/films

When the magical Triwizard Tournament needed a place to bring together wizards from around the world, they called on Dumbledore as host. So he has the respect and trust of the international community. As Headmaster at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he—like President Roslin above—also knows all about managing different personalities and needs while staying focused on the bigger picture. PLUS, MAGIC WAND.

Patient Zero

  • First person to be diagnosed with the disease at the source of the outbreak, as identified by epidemiologists

Beth Emhoff, “Contagion”

Why her in this role? Well...she died of a terrible pandemic in a movie that even had “a dose of realism” (H1N1 came on the scene about 6 months into the movie’s writing—”We got to see a lot of the questions we were asking as they played out,” said one of the movie’s writers.) If someone has to be first, then at least an Academy Award winner can make the moment emotional and dramatic.



  • Source of the outbreak, as identified by epidemiologists

The Monkey, “Outbreak”

So cute! (Note: DO NOT CUDDLE.)



This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.