Just How Bad Would a Zombie Apocalypse Really Be? A Scientist Explains

Here's what a global pandemic would actually look like.
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Here's what a global pandemic would actually look like.

American culture's obsession with zombies has never been stronger. But just how devastating would a real-life zombie apocalypse be? And what should we do to prepare for one? 

Dr. Tara C. Smith, a microbiologist and infectious disease epidemiologist from Kent State University, sought to address these questions in a peer-reviewed paper for the British Medical Journal’s lighthearted Christmas issue in December. Dr. Smith, who is a member of the Zombie Research Society, has advocated for more funding for the study of zombies and better preparation by authorities for an upcoming zombie apocalypse. 

"The documented rise of multiple zombie pathogens should be a wake-up call," Dr. Smith writes, "that we need additional funding and cooperation among scientists and government officials to tackle the looming threat of apocalyptic disease."

Sure, Dr. Smith published her paper as a tongue-in-cheek provocation to get people talking about an unsexy topic like infectious disease prevention, but the scientist definitely raises some interesting questions about a potential rise of the undead. Maxim spoke Dr. Smith about her thought-provoking paper and her views on an impending zombie apocalypse.

What inspired you to write about this topic?

Dr. Smith: I’m on the advisory board of the Zombie Research Society and have loved zombies forever. I use zombies in my work in various ways to get people to think about other topics in infectious diseases, including lectures I give as part of my position as an American Society for Microbiology Distinguished Lecturer.

New infectious diseases are a part of life. We need to be prepared for them, whether the next one is influenza or a zombie virus.

Can you please briefly describe what an actual global zombie apocalypse would theoretically look like?

It doesn’t involve zombies, but a pretty realistic outbreak movie is Contagion. It shows the spread of a new infectious virus through the population, with people responding with varying degrees of panic, runs on supplies, quarantine of cities, restrictions on travel, a long scientific slog to figure out the novel microbe, and an even longer battle to figure out a vaccine to prevent further spread of the pathogen. So it probably would be much like that, but with more biting.

Which film or TV depiction of the zombie apocalypse comes closest to what is actually scientifically possible?

I think the cordyceps fungus (The Last of Us; Girl with All the Gifts) is a strong contender; a weaponized rabies virus like you see in The Crazies that causes extreme aggression could be a close second. I actually wrote about how real some of them are a few months back (spoiler: most aren’t very).

What is it about zombies that fascinates us so much, from a scientific standpoint?

I think it’s because they’re just real enough to make people nervous. We’re forced to confront our own mortality by coming face-to-face with the “walking dead,” and at the same time, the scenarios in some of the zombie movies and books are just realistic enough to be useful as a scientific model. And many different types of science can be affected—neurobiologists can talk about zombie brains; I discuss zombie infections; pathologists can talk about what happens to the zombified body; even political scientists can get in on the game discussing foreign policy response to zombies, or social scientist on the effects of zombies on society. There’s something for everyone.

Given our present state of preparedness, just how screwed would we be in the event of a large-scale zombie apocalypse?

Pretty screwed. A report was just released a few days back showing how poorly most states are prepared for various public health issues, and the news was pretty bad. And those are for “ordinary” issues that we tackle routinely, like food-borne outbreaks. Something like a zombie outbreak would stretch us to the breaking point if it wasn’t contained pretty quickly.

Is there any precedent from history that might provide some insight into how health officials would handle a zombie apocalypse?

You can see what happened just last year with Ebola. If a developing country were hit, as we saw with World War Z (the novel version), things could get very bad very quickly, as it did with Ebola—from a single case in December 2013 to over 28,000 cases currently, though new cases have now slowed to a trickle. You can contrast that with the response to Ebola here in the US, where we only had two cases transmitted. So response, infrastructure, and training of medical personnel makes a big difference—when those are in place, at least an initial wave of outbreaks could be contained. 

We saw similar outcomes with SARS in 2003, where quarantines and enhanced infection control procedures were rapidly put in place once they realized what was happening, and got the virus under control fairly quickly. A worse scenario would be something like 1918 flu, where at least a half million people were infected in just a few months, and 3-5% of the population (about 50-100 million) died.

How have reactions to this paper been different from reactions to your more traditional papers? What has the reaction from the scientific and medical community been like?

I don’t usually get interview requests from Maxim for my regular scientific papers, for one. It’s definitely gotten more media attention than my “real” papers. Reading some of the comments sections is also a bit surreal, with some people calling me an idiot for writing about this, and others loving the paper. The scientific and medical community has been very supportive, at least from the feedback I’ve received on Twitter and elsewhere.

I’ve heard people draw connections between the rise of the AIDS crises and the rise in our culture’s interest in vampires. How do think our cultural obsession with zombies is influenced by real world health crises? USAMRIID’s work on the Ebola virus in the 80’s and 90’s also seemed to have a big impact on pop culture.

I do think the perpetual scare from emerging diseases has helped to really drive the resurgence of the zombie in pop culture. In the past 20 years, we’ve seen the ascendance of Ebola in popular culture (large outbreaks in 1995 and 2014-15; the books The Coming Plague and The Hot Zone, and movie Outbreak); years of concern over H5N1 “bird flu” and then the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic; SARS; West Nile’s entry into and spread throughout the U.S.; warnings of a “post-antibiotic” future, among other infectious disease threats. 

I think the zombie obsession fits nicely into a world that is constantly plagued by new plagues.

Are there currently any serious global health threats that are regarded as a joke or fiction? AIDS was often mocked and minimized as a "gay plague" in the 80’s.

Yeah, there were some pretty egregious instances of mocking AIDS early on, even by governmental officials in Reagan’s administration. I think you’ll always have people who minimize things or use them as jokes, especially among circles that don’t accept some new pathogens as real potential threats. Or, for SNL skits if your name fits the bill.

Are there examples of people taking your paper literally? Any funny responses from people who didn’t realize the paper was tongue-in-cheek?

I haven’t seen any journalists do so, but definitely in the comments sections there have been some who were confused. Yahoo was a bad one, so was I Fucking Love Science’s comments section—lots of “why are we paying for this??” and “waste of time” and “zombies aren’t real” comments.

What can everyday people do to help protect against some sort of global pandemic?

Washing your hands is one of the biggest things. It’s not sexy, but it really helps with decreasing disease transmission. If you don’t have access to soap and water, alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a second choice, but that doesn’t kill everything (like norovirus, the “winter vomiting bug.”) Keep up-to-date on your vaccines. Adults forget they need vaccines too, but still need influenza vaccines yearly and shots for shingles and pneumococcus depending on their age.

The CDC recently released a highly publicized “Zombie Preparedness Guide.” How do you feel about the medical community embracing pop culture to get its messages across? Are there any drawbacks to this strategy?

I’m biased of course, but I think it’s a good thing. I see it as just one more way to reach out to people and to spread public health messages. I think the risk is that with some segments of the population, using the pop culture strategy can lose you some gravitas and people may take you less seriously. 

I think we’re still stuck in this stereotype of scientists, and especially governmental public health officials, as old white men in suits and ties (or maybe starched lab coats) who don’t smile and have no sense of humor. Time to break that mold, in my opinion.

You can read Dr. Smith's paper here.