Global disease outbreaks are no joke. But as part of the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue — which features quirky (but still peer-reviewed) scientific studies — Kent State University's Tara Smith is taking a tongue-in-cheek look at the potential for a zombie epidemic.
"Zombies — also known as walkers, Zed, Zs, biters, geeks, stiffs, roamers, Zeke, ghouls, rotters, Zoms and runners — have become a dominant part of the medical landscape," Smith writes in the study, referring to numerous (fictional) accounts of the living dead. These descriptions, she explains, date back to the 1500s. Symptoms usually include a taste for human flesh, a shambling gait and a "tendency to moan."
But even though "history" is rife with examples of zombie contagion, researchers just can't get the funding they need to prevent a full-blown apocalypse.
"Because of the rapid onset of zombie outbreaks and their society-destroying characteristics, prevention and treatment are largely unexplored," Smith writes. And she points out that a vaccine, even if developed, would hardly be effective with so many anti-vaxxers in the country. "More research in this area is sorely needed," she writes.
"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 concludes. "We need a frank discussion of the ethical and potential criminal problems associated with dealing with zombies. Will people be prosecuted for killing a zombie or a person who has been bitten but has not yet “turned”? Is mass quarantine of those who have been exposed to a zombie but not bitten legal? How would it be achieved?"
"For the sake of humanity we must ensure that such a war does not occur and that we work together as a unified global community to respond quickly to any and all new zombie threats."
Smith is a member of the Zombie Research Society, a group of scholars dedicated to doing real-life research and analysis of zombie lore. While it's clear that Smith is pulling from fictional outbreaks to build her case, talking about the swift and inevitable mayhem of a zombie plague can get you thinking seriously about more realistic diseases.
"We give talks around the country about scientific issues — tied into zombies. It's a way to bring attention to these subjects that otherwise might not seem interesting. In my case, it's infectious disease," Smith told The Post.
Folks might not get riled up by a lecture about flu pandemics, but zombies do the trick.
When asked what real-world infections were most analogous to her fictional zombie trend, Smith suggested that the recent Ebola epidemic showed how woefully unprepared we are for a pandemic.
"Of course, that came out of nowhere, in urbanized areas where it has never been seen before," Smith said. "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."
Real-world boogeymen like Ebola really do need more of our attention. And you know what you should really be afraid of? Antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That stuff should terrify you.
If nothing else, I bet you can get through this whole study without getting bored or confused, so it's a great way to learn how scientific publication works. Go learn something.