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Why Do They Need to Stay Apart in Five Feet Apart?

Five Feet Apart: The Science Behind the Serious Medical Condition in the New Film

FIVE FEET APART, l-r: Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, 2019. ph: Patti Perret/ CBS Films/courtesy Everett Collection

In the upcoming movie Five Feet Apart, a pair of teenagers fall in love, even though they can't be together. Classic romantic movie trope — but this time, the reason they're kept apart isn't teen angst or family rules: it's an incurable genetic disease. If you're wondering what the meaning of the title is, look no further. We've got a crash course for you.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that affects the cells in the body that produce the body's secretions, according to the Mayo Clinic. A defective gene causes secretions — such as mucus, sweat, and digestive fluids — to be thick, rather than the thin consistency they're supposed to be. As a result, these secretions start to plug up important pathways in the body, particularly affecting the lungs and pancreas. Because of this, people diagnosed with cystic fibrosis are prone to chronic infections — which is what leads into the premise of Five Feet Apart.

People with the disease are at higher risk of cross-infection, which can lead to serious or even life-threatening infections.
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According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, there is a recommendation that, when multiple people with cystic fibrosis are in the same environment (such as a school, or, in the case of Five Feet Apart, a hospital ward), they should be kept a minimum of six feet apart at all times. Why? Airborne germs can travel up to six feet when someone coughs or sneezes. Because of the nature of cystic fibrosis, people with the disease are at higher risk of cross-infection, which can lead to serious or even life-threatening infections.

"Medical studies show that people with CF are at particular risk of spreading certain germs among others with the disease. This is known as cross-infection. In people with CF, thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs also allows germs to thrive and multiply. This buildup makes them more susceptible to developing lung infections. Despite significant progress in treating CF, infections remain a serious problem and can lead to worsening lung disease and death," the foundation page says.

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Five Feet Apart's portrayal of teens with the incurable condition has been met with both support and criticism from members of the cystic fibrosis community. Jane the Virgin's Justin Baldoni, who directs the film, met with advocate and patient Claire Wineland in an attempt to portray the disease and its complications accurately. Wineland's foundation, the Claire's Place Foundation, noted the ins and outs of this discussion in an Instagram post.

"Claire and many other people from our CF Community worked with Justin and the amazing cast in the hope's of accurately portraying the reality of life with #cysticfibrosis," the post reads. "Of course, we all understand that this is a tragic story and that people with cystic fibrosis must be very careful about contact precautions. As a public figure in the CF Community, Claire took that aspect very seriously and warned 'Do not try this at home..' However, it's a wonderfully well written love story and she credited most CFers with understanding all about precautions and specific guidelines."

It's the "don't try this at home" aspect that has others questioning the film's premise. Cystic fibrosis patient and advocate Julie Rae wrote on her blog that the depictions of the "six feet apart" rule are inaccurate and even dangerous:

Exposing cystic fibrosis patients to deadly bacteria through cross-contamination, in the name of love, is a violation of the most fundamental principle of medical ethics — "Do No Harm"... The trailer shows the main characters touching each others' medications and walking together with no masks. No responsible doctor or nurse would allow or promote this... I argue infection control is a serious issue in the cystic fibrosis community. It is not a topic that allows any room for "creative license".

It's a complicated subject, but one that definitely has made Five Feet Apart a fresh addition to the genre of emotional teen movies. The movie hits theaters on March 15!

Image Source: Everett Collection
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