Hordes of flesh-eating zombies haven’t yet made the leap from the horror-movie screen to downtown city streets, but that hasn’t stopped two professors from the UBC school of population and public health from sharing tips on how to handle an invasion of the living dead.
Assistant professor Jennifer Gardy and professor David Patrick are taking part in a free public talk on October 21 to discuss how public health workers would diagnose, model and respond to a zombie virus. The talk is part of the school of population and public health’s Grand Round series and will feature faculty, students and guest speakers from UBC and the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Do zombies really exist and how likely is a zombie apocalypse?
JG: Absolutely! They’re just not the humanoid ones we recognize from movies. There are loads of zombie parasites out there in other species. While preparing for the rise of the undead is a little over the top, new diseases are emerging all the time, and thinking about how we’d prep for a zombie apocalypse is a great way of getting us thinking about more realistic disease scenarios, like a viral pandemic.
DP: In comparison, zombie behaviour is pretty unique, so we suspect that most emergency doctors would begin to ask questions. The difference with a zombie epidemic is the uncontrolled and aggressive behaviour of the zombie – that certainly increases the chances of transmission. This behaviour is reminiscent of animal and even human behaviour associated with rabies. The number of people that could be infected with a zombie virus would be highly dependent on the efficiency of transmission. Rabies is transmitted by a bite, but it’s not so efficient that it results in a giant epidemic in people.
How can the average citizen prepare for, and escape, a zombie attack?
DP: The first part of preparation is common to earthquakes and other disasters: make sure you have a survival kit. The more portable it is, like a loaded knapsack, the better.
In every other epidemic we’ve seen, infected people are not all running around exhibiting behaviour that would threaten others. So a zombie epidemic would raise a whole bunch of new ethical issues around our duty to the sick, the healthy, and the role of civil society in protecting itself. Movies aside, the medical imperative is clearly to get to the root of the problem, interrupt transmission, heal the sick, if possible, and protect the healthy. But we’d sure need to pay attention to building security!
How would we respond to an outbreak of the zombie virus?
JG: We use mathematical modelling techniques to understand how quickly a pathogen might spread – these same models are used in zombie movies when they’re showing the projected spread of the outbreak.
Remember that in any outbreak, rumours and misinformation will abound. Listen to public-health officials and heed their advice – you can trust that we’ll share everything we know with you.
Should you try and help an infected relative or friend?
DP: As long as this can be done while minimizing risk to yourself, it’s worth a try. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, could have been even worse. But people were able to put aside fear, employ rational measures for infection control, and care for the sick.
The ethical argument for sedating a zombie is pretty straightforward. As a physician I would sure want to know if I could protect others by isolating and, if necessary, sedating the zombie before I entertained vigilante solutions. “Any idiot can pump a shotgun” but a real healthcare worker is going to do what he or she can to preserve life.
What should you do if you get bitten by a zombie?
DP: Contribute to a natural history study or volunteer for a clinical trial.
‘The real public health science behind the zombie apocalypse’ will be held on October 21st at 9am in Michael Smith Laboratories, Room 102.
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