Emerging Infectious Diseases, Better Public Health Outcomes, and Zombies

In conclusion, zombies are awesome, and can be used as a thought experiment to probe the ethical dimensions of public health responses to disease outbreaks.
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Perhaps the public's obsession with zombies can be refracted from horror movies and towards health issues, suggests a new paper in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases

The hope is that zombies can do for public health awareness what they did for Jane Austen: tack on some zombies and suddenly boring things turn exciting (see: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies*).

Rabies awareness, in particular, could benefit from the shambling hordes -- apparently because of the similarities between the actual symptoms of rabies and the fictional symptoms of zombies. "Zombie popularity may be a perfect opportunity to increase awareness of rabies," the UC Irvine team lead by Brandon Brown wrote.

The most prominent resemblance between those afflicted with rabies and zombiism begins at the mouth; both ailments are primarily transmitted through biting. While the pathogenesis for zombification is less consistent, rabies spreads through infected saliva entering the body. In addition, victims indicate infected status with increased production of fluid from the mouth; in the case of rabies, increased salivation occurs to improve chances of transmission. Rabies control in practice may be similar to hypothetical control of zombie outbreaks. For example, in 2008, Indonesian officials in Bali killed roughly 50,000 dogs in 5 days after an outbreak of rabies. This sparked a great deal of controversy, leading to the primary alternative of mass vaccination. If a zombie apocalypse were to occur, surviving humans might not have the capacity for mass vaccination. The sole option may be to kill the undead for human survival; however, the ethics of destroying something that was once human might be called into question.

One might ask: is rabies education actually a problem? It is, after all, preventable -- and deaths in the United States are now very rare. But a 2004 study found, rabies was "not effectively controlled throughout much of the developing world." In fact, the disease caused a health impact on part with dengue fever. Furthermore, the way rabies infections spread has changed. People used to contract rabies from domestic animals; now it is wildlife (bats, primarily) who host the virus. Americans should probably know this, just in case. 

And the paper draws on the successful outreach the Centers for Disease Control made in linking reports of zombie-ism to disaster preparedness to show that public health researchers can ride weird news to rech a greater audience. Zombies can be used as a thought experiment to probe the ethical dimensions of public health responses to disease outbreaks.

Or as the researchers put it, "We propose ... building on the popularity of zombies to increase public health awareness in the general public, and explore additional issues that may have not been considered in the past, such as infection control, mental health issues, ethics of disease, and bioterrorism potential."


* Actually, I love Jane Austen. Her narratorial control, the way she weaves subjectivities together, is subtle and thrilling. (And politically interesting.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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