More Funding, Research Needed to Prevent 'Zombie Apocalypse,' Medical Journal Says

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Your zombie preparedness plan could be your best defense for any real pandemic. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

If fears of a zombie apocalypse keep you up at night, then it’s good you’ve taken the initiative to prepare: stockpiled water and food; invested in backup medical supplies, a hand-crank radio, flashlight and other essentials; and maybe acquired tools for self-defense. But those who haven’t should take note that public health disasters can happen at any time, according to a new paper published this week in the BMJ that reviews the biology and epidemiology of zombie infections.

Tara Smith, associate professor at Kent State University in the department of biostatistics, environmental health sciences and epidemiology, hopes to bring a greater awareness to the threat posed by the walking dead, a public health problem that dates back as far as the 1500s in Haiti. According to Smith, modern-day infections are caused by a number of pathogens that are transmitted through animals and eventually human-to-human, and are evidently linked to the cause of known scourges such as Ebola, rabies and prion infections. The disease manifests in a number of ways, but most commonly victims possess a “shambling gait, tendency to moan, loss of dexterity and prior personality traits, and the eventual rotting of flesh,” Smith wrote.

“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,” she wrote.

This is, of course, all in jest and part of the prestigious medical journal’s Christmas issue. But Smith’s article does raise some cogent points. Her work on zombies is an effort to encourage more awareness about disaster preparedness, particularly when it comes to controlling infectious diseases. The undead’s prized place in our culture is a way to inspire people to think about things like having important documents in a safe place and knowing exactly where you and your family will go in case of emergency.

Smith is an advisory board member of the Zombie Research Society, an organization dedicated to the “historical, cultural and scientific study of the living dead,” according to the group’s website. She shares the board with an assortment of experienced experts and zombiephiles from the fields of medicine, law, military intelligence and neuroscience.

While there’s no evidence that zombies actually exist, much of the public spends an inordinate amount of time, brainpower and money on the undead. According to a report from 24/7 Wall St., zombie entertainment in all its forms—including movies, television shows, books, video games, conventions, art, costumes, merchandise and survival gear—rake in approximately $5 billion annually. Approximately 15.8 million people watched the March season finale of The Walking Dead. An endless list of zombie entertainment and ephemera has made many think about worst case scenario emergencies—even if they never meant to.

“Everybody has a zombie preparedness plan,” Smith tells Newsweek. “You know what weapon you're going to get and where you're going to go when you book it out of town.”

(Some of Newsweek staff writers’ responses when asked for their weapons of choice, all given within seconds of the question being posed: “the Navy's aircraft carrier–mounted rail gun,” “flamethrower,” “wooden baseball bat with nails sticking out,” “this automatic weapon,” “cricket bat,” “definitely a halberd” and “Can you lure them into a pit and throw a grenade?”)

However, most people—and way too many government officials—don’t have an operating protocol or infrastructure in place for when a real pandemic hits, a scary truth clearly evident in last year’s Ebola outbreak.

“We use zombies as a way to introduce science that otherwise would not be of interest, such as talking about the brain and disease transmission,” says Smith, whose favorite zombie film is 28 Days Later, which she calls “scary and realistic enough.”

“It's a way to look at those issues in a more fun and less threatening atmosphere.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention picked up on this idea a few years ago, when the agency launched its “Zombie Preparedness” campaign. It included a novella in which a public health announcement encourages viewers to stay home and make sure they are have plenty of food and water, the CDC expedites research on a vaccine to prevent transmission, local health clinics administer a simple blood test. At the end of the story, they provide a guide for creating an “all-hazards emergency kit.”

A number of universities in the country also offer zombie courses, including the University of Baltimore, San Diego State University and Harvard University.

In her real academic life, Smith studies pathogens such as antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a problem that public health officials are only just starting address. “Every day, I’m thinking about how we’re running out of antibiotics,” she says.

That, of course, is a threat far more terrifying than a reanimation of any human corpse.