What You Need to Know to Survive a Zombie Disease

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It's going to take more than washing your hands to save you from the zombie diease.If you stay up late at night worrying about the impending zombie apocalypse, you will be happy to hear the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a blog post outlining exactly what you need to do to keep yourself (and your family) safe from the undead. But while the CDC provides great tips for preparing for an emergency of epidemic proportions, if you want to survive the zombies, you will also need to arm yourself with knowledge of infectious diseases and how they spread.

In popular media, the zombie apocalypse is often depicted as an outbreak of an infectious disease, such as a mutated strain of mad cow disease (Zombieland, 2009) or a virus for biological warfare (The Crazies, 2010). Similar to real viruses and bacterial infections, the zombie disease in films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Day of the Dead (1985) is spread through contact, normally by a bite or contact with a bodily fluid (like blood) from the infected.

So what’s the first step in protection against the zombie apocalypse? Figure out what type of microbe is behind the infectious disease and how it spreads. Viruses and bacteria are two of the most common infectious agents and when you examine how each works, it is sort of scary. Viruses hijack cells to produce copies of themselves, which may burst out of the host cell – scary, right? Well, get this: bacteria can acquire new genetic material from other bacteria, viruses, plants, and yeast, meaning they can evolve suddenly and rapidly.

But what about other infectious agents – for example, prions? Prions are abnormally folded proteins that are thought to cause mad cow disease, as well as the human version, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. They cause infection by turning normal proteins into prions, setting off a chain reaction that eventually riddles the brain with holes. Also, fun fact: prions are resistant to heat, ultraviolent light, radiation, and sterilization. They also do not evoke an immune response, and while commonly thought to be transmitted by ingesting food (such as beef) infected with prions, it is possible for infection to occur from contact with bodily fluids.

Will the zombie disease be a virus, bacteria, fungi or other infectious agent?Other major infectious agents include fungi, protozoa, and helminths. So, a virus or bacteria may not be responsible for the zombie apocalypse afterall – it could be a zombie attack by fungi! But, however the zombie disease chooses to attack, there are several common means of transmission to watch out for: direct contact (with infected skin, mucous membranes, or body fluids), common vehicles (such as contaminated food or water), vectors (think mosquitoes, rats), and airborne transmission (which can be residue from evaporated droplets or dust particles).

Okay, so now that you know how the zombie disease is spreading, how can you protect yourself? Well, first, the most common answer: do not come in contact with what is spreading the disease (whether it is blood or an animal). Other answers are typical of how we keep diseases at bay: wash your hands with soap and water, follow food safety rules, etc. But there are two other, surprising ways to avoid disease: avoid contracting an antibiotic-resistant infection and stop climate change.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern. Bacteria can, and often does, become less responsive to antibiotic treatment. This can result in more expensive drugs to cure the infection, extended hospital stays, and more courses of drug treatments needed (instead of just one dose). If the zombie apocalypse is caused by a bacterial outbreak, even if an antibiotic is created to treat the infection, it is likely the bacteria will evolve (remember, bacteria can acquire new genetic material and evolve quickly!) and become antibiotic resistant. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to avoid an antibiotic-resistant zombie infection:

  • Do not take antibiotics when they are not necessary, such as to cure a viral infection or when your health care provider says they are not needed.
  • If you are prescribed antibiotics, follow your health care provider’s instructions for use. Do not skip doses or stash antibiotics away for the next time you are sick.

Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s focus on climate change. Scientists predict that rising temperatures due to climate change will change the transmission dynamics and geographic range of disease. Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever are highly sensitive to environmental changes. In 2003, 2005, and 2006, outbreaks of West Nile virus in the Midwest United States coincided with heat waves. Climate change also promotes infectious disease through human migration and displacement following extreme weather such as hurricanes, fires, and droughts. If the zombie disease is carried by vectors such as mosquitoes, climate change could possibly help the outbreak spread by providing hot weather to speed up the mosquitoes’ breeding cycle. So, while you knew climate change was hurting the environment, now you know it could also be hurting your health.

So now that you’ve received a brief overview of infectious disease, do you feel more prepared for a zombie apocalypse? If not, you can learn more about infectious disease in What You Need to Know About Infectious Disease, a free PDF from the National Academies Press.

Photo credits (top right & lower left): Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.