The Walking Dead/AMC

Study calls for international action to prevent a 'zombie apocalypse'

The lighter side of infectious diseases research.

PETER DOCKRILL
16 DEC 2015
 

Zombies aren't real, and that's a really good thing. Because if they were real, we wouldn't stand a chance against them, according to a new tongue-in-cheek study published in the Christmas issue of The British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Tara Smith, a researcher at Kent State University, has summarised the epidemiology and pathology of zombie infections from the available source data (largely horror movies and comic books, but also real-world academic literature on the topic) and concluded that we need to act now as a unified global community to tackle this pressing 'health crisis'.

 

"The documented rise of multiple zombie pathogens should be a wake-up call to the international community that we need additional funding and cooperation among scientists and government officials to tackle the looming threat of apocalyptic disease," writes Smith, who in addition to her day job as an infectious diseases researcher is also a member of the Zombie Research Society (yes, such a club exists).

Zombies, she says, have been traced back as far as the 1500s, and go by a number of different names, such as walkers, Zed, Zs, biters, and stiffs, among others. Though the definition of zombie has changed over time, the classical criteria are: a reanimated human corpse, which is relentlessly aggressive, biologically infected, and infectious.

"Although reanimated zombies have been documented for potentially millennia, rage zombies seem to be a more recent phenomenon," Smith notes, which ultimately culminated in attacks that led to the fictionalised quarantine of Britain in 2002 (which some of you may recall from 28 Days Later).

"Symptoms of infection tend to be fairly uniform, regardless of the nature of the pathogen, but the incubation period is highly variable, with time to development of symptoms ranging from seconds to hours or days," writes Smith. "Infected people may clinically die and reanimate, or they may remain alive but with the same aggressive tendencies and taste for human flesh as reanimated zombies."

Zombie outbreaks are primarily transmitted by bites delivered by zombies, but insect vectors, animal-based infections, and weaponised zombie pathogens have all been reported in the past.

"Because of the rapid onset of zombie outbreaks and their society-destroying characteristics, prevention and treatment are largely unexplored," writes Smith. "Severing the bitten area from the body has proved successful in some cases but is not universally preventative, and it is sometimes impossible owing to bite location or the speed of viral incubation."

Another problem is prevention, according to Smith, who says further research into medications that could help stop people turning into zombies is sorely needed.

"Vaccines have been difficult to study because of the associated cost and the inadequacy of many laboratories to provide proper containment of zombie pathogens or infected zombies, as well as the diversity of zombifying agents," she writes. "Vaccine hesitancy may make it difficult to achieve society-wide uptake of a zombie vaccine. Even if an effective treatment were developed, it may need to be taken perpetually to prevent the affected person from reverting to zombiism."

As part of the Zombie Research Society, Smith and her fellow members help educate the public about all things undead and shuffling. "We give talks around the country about scientific issues – tied into zombies," she told Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post. "It's a way to bring attention to these subjects that otherwise might not seem interesting. In my case, it's infectious disease."

But while Smith's paper is all in the name of good fun, her eerily realistic assessment of the theoretical threats posed by zombie outbreaks are not a million miles from the language used to discuss actual pandemics – and if that can get people to think more about the transmissibility and risks of actual pathogens, all the better.

"Of course, [Ebola in West Africa] came out of nowhere, in urbanised areas where it has never been seen before," said Smith. "But we had pretty terrible communications globally – a lot of hype and a lot of misunderstanding. And that was really isolated in just West Africa. If we had something like that but it was globally spread, we'd really be in trouble."

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