Could the Zombie Apocalypse really happen?

Of all possible doomsday scenarios, the so-called zombie apocalypse is not one I’ve taken steps to prepare for. I always thought it was something for gamers to imagine, or hipsters to laugh about because it was ‘ironic.’ But I’ve have into an article by CNN Health with actual scientific data that suggests it could be a possibility. Now I still think zombies are bullshit, but maybe I’ll think about attaching a chainsaw to my shotgun just in case.

An airborne virus is rapidly turning people into zombies. Two-thirds of humanity has been wiped out. Scientists desperately look for a cure, even as their own brains deteriorate and the disease robs them of what we consider life.

It’s only fiction — at least, for now. This apocalyptic scenario frames the new novel “The Zombie Autopsies” by Dr. Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist who holds positions at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Program in Child Psychiatry.

You might not expect someone with those credentials to take zombies seriously, but it turns out the undead are a great way to explore real-world health issues: why certain nasty diseases can destroy the brain, how global pandemics create chaos and fear, and what should be done about people infected with a highly contagious and incurable lethal illness.
“One of the things zombie novels do is they bring up all these existential concerns that happen in medicine all the time: How do you define what’s alive?” says Schlozman, who has been known to bounce between zombie fan conventions and academic meetings. “When is it appropriate to say someone’s ‘as-good-as-dead,’ which is an awful, difficult decision?”

What a zombie virus would do to the brain

So maybe you’ve seen “Night of the Living Dead,” read “World War Z,” or can’t wait for the return of the AMC show “The Walking Dead,” but you probably don’t know what differentiates the brains of humans and zombies.
First things first: How does the zombie disease infect its victims? Many stories in the genre talk about biting, but Schlozman’s novel imagines a deliberately engineered virus whose particles can travel in the air and remain potent enough to jump from one person to another in a single sneeze.
Now, then, to the brain-eating. The zombie virus as Schlozman describes it basically gnaws the brain down to the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure responsible for the “fight or flight” response. The zombies always respond by fighting because another critical part of the brain, the ventromedial hypothalamus, which tells you when you’ve eaten enough, is broken.
The brain’s frontal lobes, responsible for problem-solving, are devoured by the virus, so zombies can’t make complex decisions. Impairment in the cerebellum means they can’t walk well, either. Also, these humanoids have an unexplained predilection for eating human flesh.
“The zombies in this book are stumbling, shambling, hungry as hell,” Schlozman said. “Basically they’re like drunk crocodiles; they’re not smart, they don’t know who you are or what you are.”

How a zombie virus would be made

So the bloodthirsty undead wander (or crawl) around spreading a lethal illness ominously called ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome, or ANSD, for short.
“When something really terrifying comes along, especially in medicine or that has a medical feel to it, we always give it initials. That’s the way we distance ourselves from it,” Schlozman said.
The virus has several brain-destroying components, one of which is a “prion,” meaning a protein like the one that causes mad cow disease. In real life, prions twist when they are in an acidic environment and become dangerous, Schlozman said. How our own environment has changed to make prions infectious — getting from the soil to the cows in mad cow disease, for instance — is still a mystery.
Now here’s something to send chills up your spine: In Schlozman’s world, airborne prions can be infectious, meaning mad cow disease and similar nervous-system destroyers could theoretically spread just like the flu. Swiss and German researchers recently found that mice that had only one minute of exposure to aerosols containing prions died of mad cow disease, as reported in the journal PLoS Pathogens. A follow-up described in Journal of the American Medical Association showed the same for a related disease that’s only found in animals called scrapie. Of course, these are mice in artificially controlled conditions in a laboratory, and humans do not exhale prions, but it could have implications for safety practices nonetheless.
Like mad cow disease, the zombie disease Schlozman describes also progresses in acidic environments. In the book, a major corporation doles out implantable meters that infuse the body with chemicals to artificially lower acidity when it gets too high. But, sadly, when acidity is too low, that also induces symptoms that mimic the zombie virus, so it’s not a longterm solution. Everyone who gets exposed eventually succumbs, Schlozman said.
As for the unknown component of the zombie disease that would help slowly zombifying researchers in their quest for a cure, that’s up for the reader to figure out — and the clues are all in the book, Schlozman said.

How we’d fight back

You can’t ethically round up fellow survivors to kick some zombie butt unless the undead have technically died. And in Schlozman’s book, a group of religious leaders get together and decide that when people reach stage four of the disease, they are basically dead. That, of course, permits zombie “deanimation,” or killing.

And how do you kill a zombie? Much of zombie fiction knocks out zombies through shots to the head. That, Schlozman said, is because the brain stem governs the most basic functioning: breathing and heartbeat.
A zombie-apocalypse disease like the one he describes probably wouldn’t evolve on its own in the real world, he said.
But, as we’ve seen, individual symptoms of zombies do correspond to real ailments. And if they all came together, the disease would be creepily efficient at claiming bodies, Schlozman said.

Bad news, folks: Even if people contracted a zombie virus through bites, the odds of our survival aren’t great.
A mathematician at the University of Ottawa named Robert Smith? (who uses the question mark to distinguish himself from other Robert Smiths, of course), has calculated that if one zombie were introduced to a city of 500,000 people, after about seven days, every human would either be dead or a zombie.

“We’re in big, big trouble if this ever happens,” Smith? said. “We can kill the zombies a bit, but we’re not very good at killing zombies fundamentally. What tends to happen is: The zombies just win, and the more they win, the more they keep winning” because the disease spreads so rapidly.

The best solution is a strategic attack, rather than an “every man for himself” defense scenario, he said. It would take knowledge and intelligence, neither of which zombies have, to prevail.

Why study zombies?

In his day job, Smith models how real infectious diseases spread. But he’s already reaped benefits from his work on zombies. For instance, while many mathematical models only deal with one complicated aspect of a situation at a time, he tackled two — zombie infection and zombie-killing — when it came to speculating about outbreaks.
When it came time for modeling of real-world human papillomavirus (HPV), then, Smith? felt equipped to handle many facets of it at the same time, such as heterosexual and homosexual transmission of HPV.
“Knowing what we knew from zombies allowed us to actually take on these more complicated models without fear,” he said.
Studying zombies is also a great way to get young people excited about science. Smith?, who was on a zombie-science panel with Schlozman through the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange in 2009, has also seen math-phobic people get interested in mathematics by reading about his work with zombies.
“There are insights that we gain from the movies, and from fiction, from fun popular culture stuff, that actually can really help us think about the way that science works, and also the way science is communicated,” he said.
And as to why people like reading about zombies and watching zombies so much, Schlozman points to the impersonal nature of things in our society, from waiting in line in the DMV to being placed on hold on a call with a health insurance company.
Think about all the situations in daily life where you sense a general lack of respect for humanity, and zombies make a little more sense. “The zombies themselves represent a kind of commentary on modernity,” Schlozman says. “We’re increasingly disconnected. That might be the current appeal.”

Incoming search terms:

Share this post

  • Subscribe to our RSS feed
  • Share this post on Delicious
  • StumbleUpon this post
  • Share this post on Digg
  • Tweet about this post
  • Share this post on Mixx
  • Share this post on Technorati
  • Share this post on Facebook
  • Share this post on NewsVine
  • Share this post on Reddit
  • Share this post on Google
  • Share this post on LinkedIn

About the author

ApocalypseGuide had written 162 articles for How to Survive The Apocalypse

14 Responses to "Could the Zombie Apocalypse really happen?"
  1. BrandyG May 18, 2011 01:49 am

    Theres a fungus that infects an ant and forces the ant to leave its normal habitat to locate the perfect leaf for the fungus to grow on, has the ant bite down on the leaf in the exact perfect spot, and then the fungus grows its way out of the ants head.

    Theres a parasite that lays it’s eggs inside a catapiller, and after they hatch and eat the caterpillers fluids and chew their way out of the catappillers skin, they coccoon themselves, and the catapiller now turns into their bodyguard, not leaving, not eating, and will live with them until they hatch, then it mysteriously die.

    Theres actually alot of this kind of thing in the animal kindom, esspecially with bugs, if you spend a bit of time on google using different variations of zombie and bug combinations youll find alot of this kind of stuff.

    Ive never put much thought into zombies, but after I saw something on national geographic about that fungus… and now thinking about it as some sort of contagion… eek… thanx for the nightmares doctor smith questionmark lol.

    • BrandyG May 18, 2011 01:53 am

      Oops sorry typo, not a parasite, a parasitic wasp.

  2. Sick Puppy May 18, 2011 19:34 pm

    I to think the Zombie thing is Bull Shit but I also think how would you react to it’s is an interesting intellectual exercise. First you would have to recognize there was problem then you have to diagnose what the problem was, how to protect your self and others you care about, and then how to deal with it. I will call this RDPR, or Recognize, Diagnose, Protect, React.
    If you have made any sort of preps at all that would help, the more you have covered in your preps the more time you can commit to other things during a pre SHTF situation, (like convincing your sister there is a real problem and she should get the kids and get out of dodge, or convincing you dad CNN is feeding him Bull Shit) Both of those would fall under Protect.
    How fast you would get though the RDPR process successfully would depend if you lived or not. In this situation or any SHTF situation to early would not be a bad thing, to late and you would be running out exists with the rest of the lemmings that would be bad.
    Thinking critically and having some sort of plan in place would be vital, for Zombies, or a Global Depression.

  3. Ryan Shaw May 18, 2011 19:56 pm

    Half-life 2 anyone?

  4. Evil_Cat_Grrl May 27, 2011 18:59 pm

    There’s an article cirulating about the zombie-proof house…seems to me that making that sort of preparation first would give you the best chance.


    • greyjane June 22, 2011 03:29 am

      A zombie proof house might give you a chance for a bit, but there is only so much food and water one can store (unless you plan on building or have built an extra shelter and even that can only last for so long.)

      I think what this author is trying to say is that lone renegade scenarios are nice to prepare for (and they might even work every once in awhile!), but that an apocalyptic scenario of this kind will get exponentially worse. The best response would be one that is coordinated and able to be sustained. Unfortunately, zombies are fictional and those disease models are not often considered and I doubt that our armed forces or even our little communities of survivalists would ever be prepared for a situation like a zombie apocalypse.

      But we can still gear up and prepare for other types of emergencies and that mindset is what I love about this kind of speculative fiction.

      • Damian October 8, 2012 10:52 am

        They do exist. Our trailer park is full of them. If we were allowed crossbows and guns we would have already took care of it. I would carry on as I do everyday, take out the trash, get the mail. A virus didn’t cause ours bad water did. I say zombies because 80 % of the people who live here are on mood altering drugs to keep them mellow. The only difference is they don’t eat human flesh they prefer wild turkey and deer.

    • Alondra December 26, 2012 08:33 am

      Thank goodness I own the Zombie Survival Guide! The truth of the matter is, one has to prepare well in advance to survive a zombie outbreak. You need:a dependable shelter,plenty of water and food, weapons, lots and lots of weapons few board games to occupy your time, transportation (bicycles are good for quick getaways)also, hope for slow zombies and not fast zombies!!!

  5. matt July 21, 2011 11:45 am

    its crazy to think that zombies are real, your either dead or alive

  6. BRITISH BULLDOG August 5, 2011 19:48 pm

    Zombies would just get merced by the SAS; Full Stop.

  7. AMT September 1, 2011 18:41 pm

    If you ask me, the zombie apocalypse is plausable… but not likely. and if it does happen (yay) then the one thing to bring scociety down would be our human mentality.
    in a zombie apocalypse, every human not living in a vault from the fallout universe, is shoved out of their view of life… this meaning that every one will be pretty pissed off. Heck i live in montreal and every 2-3 times our hockey team (mtl canadians) looses the playoffs, people loose thier minds and theres rioting left in right! now imagine thats just sports rage, so if the military tries to quarintine the situation, all it takes is a few (there will be ALOT more than a few) for a riot or rebellion to break out, (humans tend to do that, quite a rowdy bunch see?) and you can imagine how that ends in disaster. now what about if the military leaves well enough alone? well… supplies are limited, unless we can grow what we need, (wich is great) and if we want to survive we’d have to migrate, (yes away from the forest of claws and teeth.) but people tend to get attached to property. you know the when you moved away from your house when you were 10? now imagine that same situation every week or so. the only people who would REALLY survive a zombie apocalypse, would be the ones who understand HOW it works and have the ability to FIGHT through it. (not literay FIGHT through, but you get the point.)

  8. Survivor November 14, 2011 16:16 pm

    The zombie idea is very interesting, my idea of how it would work on your brain, the virus would Insert through the ear, nose, mouth, etc. And travel up to the part of the brain that induces animal instincts, and then it would kill the rest o the brain off, leaving the victim “dead”. Since they are “dead” his/her tissues would start to rot leaving the undead appearance but the undead can’t resist it’s animal instincts so It would begin to look for food sources (humans, animals, etc) but its only a matter of time until the undead dies for real, we don’t stand a chance 🙁

  9. The_Cat November 21, 2011 08:50 am


    Literally. =3

  10. The_Cat November 21, 2011 08:51 am

    Sorry if that was a little rude, but I’m in love with zombies… it gives people an excuse to kill… XD

Leave your response

You must be logged in to post a comment.