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Three Doctors Look to Save The World from SARS-Like Pandemics

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From the outside, the work that Mike Bonanno, Margaret Brown and Dr. Paul Farmer set out to do in 2006 was grim: documenting the growing devastation of an outbreak of the pathogen known as SARS, and battling against the many hurdles that stood in their way to do so.

But in a way, Dr. Farmer says, “SARS was the turning point for [our] work. I think we saw the heartbreak and we saw it happening all around us.”

Dr. Farmer, a doctor who has been with the International Health Regulations project — which seeks to keep international health officials together during crises — since the initial outbreak, is returning to his role as the lead of the organization at a pivotal moment, as public health officials have begun to talk about the possibility of SARS-like contagions in the United States. (The outbreak continues to be a particular concern in Canada, where about 12 patients continue to be tracked.)

On the outside of this growing crisis, all three people — doctors who each worked at the CDC — stayed motivated to stay at the intersection of physical dangers and financial challenges.

For a while, Bonanno, who first traveled to China with Farmer to help mount an international team’s response to SARS, says, they all simply “tried to be optimistic” and dreamt up strategies to remedy the situation. At the same time, he says, he knew they were doing something more important than just “encompassing ‘today.’ ”

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The time was always right for a documentary about their work, but it wasn’t the easiest of projects to materialize, says Bonanno, now a producer and consulting director for the International Health Regulations (IHR) group.

In one moment of frustration, he says that he was considering laying off staff while considering standing by his family in New York. Then Farmer reminded him, “there’s this thing called a family bond and it’s something that’s very important. So I took a huge risk and we kept going.”

The new documentary, “Fractured: The SARS and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Outbreak,” which is due out Monday, documents the complex alliance between families, WHO officials, victims and researchers who all could have taken different steps to better prepare for SARS.

Dr. David Heymann, who was then chief of WHO’s global health security program and who is seen in the documentary, agrees that there’s “no doubt” there were missed opportunities, but was critical of Bonanno’s idea that actions could have been taken more effectively and cheaply.

“He was trying to pretend he could bridge the gap between the private industry and the governmental sector and the government. That is more like bureaucracy than anything else,” he says.

When the documentary began filming, none of the three had a screenplay. All needed to keep working through the roller coaster of trying to get their project off the ground.

From the outside, the work that Mike Bonanno, Margaret Brown and Dr. Paul Farmer set out to do in 2006 was grim: documenting the growing devastation of an outbreak of the pathogen known as SARS, and battling against the many hurdles that stood in their way to do so.

“This epidemic needed the collective thoughts and attention and work of everybody,” Bonanno says.

Dr. Margaret Brown, who made two subsequent documentaries, including “Sea Change,” developed her own fundraising plan to bring in funds. “I felt like I wanted to meet the donors myself,” she says.

“I did this road show around the world, selling herself. It was like I was a drag queen out there,” she says.

At the same time, the trio was involved in dangerous epidemics and facing skepticism from those who thought they were not given enough information to become fully involved in developing solutions.

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“We got attacked, because we weren’t talking to the government. We were talking to the experts who were knowledgeable and had the knowledge,” Farmer says. “Why were we doing the job? We were doing it because we wanted to protect the public.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, who has been with the International Health Regulations project — which seeks to keep international health officials together during crises — since the initial outbreak, is returning to his role as the lead of the organization at a pivotal moment, as public health officials have begun to talk about the possibility of

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