You read that right. And yes, it was peer-reviewed.
I’ve discussed previously how I’ve used the attention paid to zombies to talk about infectious diseases with children and other audiences; and to bring some science to the Walking Dead and other zombie tales. I even include a zombie lecture as part of the talks I give in my position as an American Society for Microbiology distinguished lecturer.
Like them or hate them, zombies are part of the zeitgeist. The Walking Dead is still one of the highest-rated programs on television, and its spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead, has been renewed for a second season. Early 2016 will bring us Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on film. Even Aaaahnold Schwarzenegger did a zombie movie. The Girl with all the Gifts was a sleeper hit, and a movie version of the zombie fungus video game The Last of Us is supposedly on the way.
So that’s what the BMJ paper was all about. Of course, it’s ridiculous at its core–no one really expects a zombie outbreak. *But*, we do see new diseases emerging all the time. MERS. Zika virus. Chikungunya. Hendra. Nipah. Pandemic influenza. Other, novel influenzas. And of course, the Ebola virus disease outbreak that is still ongoing in Guinea and Liberia (though cases have finally slowed to a mere trickle).
And we’re still unprepared for them when they become explosive, as Ebola did in 2014. Analyses have showed that the delayed response to that outbreak cost lives. And that’s for a virus that is not particularly easy to transmit, as it’s only spread late in the illness via direct contact with infected bodily fluids. If that had been another virus that was airborne instead of bloodborne, the world could have been in a much worse situation. Now imagine that it was the Solanum virus of World War Z (the book version), slowly incubating in infected individuals as they move all over the globe. Definitely unprepared.
Furthermore, even with our handful of cases in the U.S., we saw that the hype and misinformation about Ebola was out of control. We saw this with H1N1 in 2009 as well, and H5N1 before that. We’re still, as a whole, pretty bad at communicating about infectious disease threats–striking that correct balance of assurance that we know what we’re doing, but acknowledging the gaps in our data and how we’re working to address those. It’s not an easy thing to do, but we need to continue improving. Because again, that’s how it always starts in zombie movies, right?
Ebola and zombies also lead to ethical dilemmas. As I noted in the paper, for a zombie outbreak, there would remain the question of quarantine (for those exposed/bitten but not yet sick), and isolation (for those who are ill)–how would those be handled? What if quarantining the healthy-but-exposed led to essentially a death sentence, as the bitten would inevitably “turn”, and possibly start chowing on the still-living who were quarantined with them? Again, ridiculous on its face, but it has parallels in real-life outbreaks and the legality and ethical quandaries of when to use such measures (and, of course, used with the assumption that they would be effective–which doesn’t always hold). There are accusations that these were violated last year, when individuals coming back from working the Ebola outbreak were quarantined–lacking in scientific justification for sure, and potentially illegal as well.
Using zombies in lieu of real diseases gives researchers, public health professionals, policy makers, and laypeople the ability to discuss these heavy issues without getting bogged down in one specific outbreak or pathogen, because many of the problems we’d face during the zombie apocalypse are similar to those that come up in any serious epidemic: coordination. Funding. Communication. Training. Access to treatment or prevention. Though I didn’t discuss it in this particular article, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is another issue–both access to it (lacking in developing countries), and being sure to choose the right gear for the outbreak (“overprotection” is not always better). Further, it encourages individuals to put together their own zombie (disaster) preparedness plan, which is how the CDC has used the zombie phenomenon.
In short, it’s way more fun for the average person to shoot the shit about zombies than to have a more serious discussion about influenza, or Ebola, or whatever the infectious disease du jour may be–and maybe even learn a bit of science and policy along the way.