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Our national zombie obsession can help us understand real public health risks

Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images file

An actress portraying a zombie poses for a picture to promote "The Walking Dead."

A figure, mouth agape, staggers across a barren landscape, moaning incoherently. Add some jerky movements and a dazed expression, and we recognize it as a zombie.

Or is it someone infected with rabies? If Brandon Brown has his way, our current national obsession with zombies will help us learn more about public health issues like rabies and other little understood conditions.

“You can almost see zombies as a link or metaphor,” explains Brown, author of the paper “Zombies—A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health,” which was published online in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

It’s not the first time zombies have been used as metaphor for public health issues. Back in 2011, Dave Daigle and colleagues wrote a wildly popular blog post about preparing for the coming zombie apocalypse as a way to encourage the public to think about disaster preparedness. So many people clicked, the CDC website crashed. “Zombies are a lot sexier than our typical health topic,” explains Maggie Silver, one of the brains behind that zombie campaign.

Brown stumbled across that post, which got him thinking about other ways zombies could educate people about public health.  

“I had previous interest in zombies because of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead,’” Brown says. “I thought I could build upon it and look at other public health related issues.”

He examined the history of zombies and soon realized the walking dead share similarities with rabies. “With both of them, there is a stage where you are trying to bite people,” deadpans Daigle.

While rabies accounts for few, if any deaths, in the United States due to prophylaxis and vaccinations, it remains a scourge in developing countries. While Brown writes that what we know about how the zombie virus moves through the body is, sadly, fictional, we know that rabies proliferates after an infected creature bites someone and the virulent saliva spreads through the blood stream. Both zombies and rabid people tend to be slack-jawed and rabid people salivate a lot, making it easier to spread the disease. And both can become violent and aggressive. Rabies makes it difficult to swallow, meaning victims’ voice boxes spasm and they cannot talk. Most zombies typically groan (though some have been known to wail “braaaaains”).     

Brown also recognized that zombies could help explain often misunderstood neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Using the zombie example to explain the neurodegenerative disorders could help people better understand these complex and frightening diseases. Both zombies and Parkinson’s patients experience muscle rigidity, tremors and slowness, for example, and the changes someone undergoes with such a disease can seem as terrifying as fictional monsters.

“I think one of the major issues with understanding Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is that there is a real lack of interest unless people have it in their own lives … I think it’s the same with rabies,” he says. 

Of course, Brown adds that with this tactic, public health administrators must take great caution not to stigmatize those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. “I think we can stigmatize zombies all we want, but have to be careful with others,” he says.  

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