A zombie virus may not be at the top of your list of likely apocalypses, but I think we can all agree that it would suck to get caught unprepared. Unfortunately, we are. As proven by countless movies, TV shows, and novels, society is woefully unready to deal with an infectious, flesh-eating horde.
That, at least, is the conclusion of Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith, in a totally serious peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of BMJ. After summarizing our limited medical knowledge on the epidemiology, treatment and prevention zombie infections, Smith argues that much more research and funding is needed if society is to have any hope of mobilizing a timely and effective public health response. Right now, a zombie outbreak would leave us — no pun intended — dead in the water.
Still, the first step toward readying society to deal with any epidemic is public education. So in the interest of making us all a bit safer this holiday season, I've given Smith's entire (two page) research paper a critical read and summarized some key facts about the living dead. Consider it your belated New Years' PSA.
Transmission: Zombie viruses are typically transmitted by human bite, although some outbreaks have been linked to insect vectors — most notably bedbugs — as well as weaponised bacteria. (Smith cites the unforgettable case of the zombie outbreak on the Titanic, which was caused by an aggressive, bioengineered strain of the bubonic plague.)
Symptoms: Shambling gait, loss of dexterity, loss of speech, guttural growling, necrotic flesh, jaundice, reckless disregard for personal safety. You know it when you see it.
Prevention: The best way to avoid zombie infection is to avoid other humans. In the event of an outbreak, you're advised to grab your survival kit and get out of your city fast — although not by train or air. Ideally, you should try to head for high ground or the far north, as historical accounts show that zombies don't fare well at sub-zero temperatures.
If you must stay in a city, see our list of the best cities to survive the zombie apocalypse in.
Euthanasia: On this matter, the science is clear: only a headshot will do. Although a quiet weapon, like a crowbar, is obviously preferable to a gun.
Treatment: Zombie infections have a very rapid onset, making post-infection treatment difficult, if not impossible. The most effective treatment method to date is rapid amputation of the afflicted area (with a blunt instrument, in a filthy holdout shelter). If you've been bit on the neck or in the abdominal region, consider yourself screwed.
Vaccines: Zombie virus vaccines are notoriously difficult to develop, for two reasons. One, governments rarely mobilize resources toward the effort until after society has gone to shit. Two, zombie researchers are usually traumatized, isolated individuals with bad cases of PTSD. They tend to engage in reckless, self-destructive behaviour, sometimes questioning whether it is worth trying to save a flawed humanity at all.
A word on rage zombies: Reanimated corpses have been documented for millennia, but so-called rage zombies are a recent, and very disturbing, trend. They were responsible for a devastating 2002 epidemic in London, as well as a 2010 outbreak in Iowa. Don't try to be the hero and stop a pack of rage zombies. They're fast, vicious, and deadly in nearly 100% of encounters.
You can read the full study at the Journal of BMJ.