Zombie Apocalypse, Part 3: Emergency Preparedness and the End of Life As We Know It (We’re Not Kidding)

zombie preparednessIn Zombie Apocalypse Part 1:  The Lamentable History of Zombies and Zombie Apocalypse, Part 2: Zombies and Pop Culture, we looked at how zombies became the current phenomenon of choice. We also examined the allure of spine-tingling fear and the chemistry of why we love to be frightened.  After all, it’s a suspension of reality. It’s just great fun.

Or so you thought.

In fact, the threat of a zombie apocalypse is actually being used as part of emergency training by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, GA. Yes, that CDC, the government’s go-to agency for all things catastrophic to our health and basically, anything that’s up to no good for the human race.

Why does this makes sense for the CDC? Take the television show The Walking Dead where apparently in the beginning of the plague there was little to suggest that a zombie pandemic was looming. The swift spread of contagion is what gave the epidemic its ferocity. Moreover, adding to the mystery of the virus’ origins is the realization in the show that everyone is infected.

Let’s compare that with a real world pandemic that happened recently. The Ebola virus swept through Western Africa and then across international boundaries leaving a great swath of death and further contagion in its path. Health care workers, individuals, whole families as well as entire villages were all succumbing with no end in sight. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies frantically tried to prepare protocols to contain the infection. While there was no breakthrough cure, scientists instead looked at quickly diagnosing the disease and implementing containment measures, which eventually brought some relief to the spread.

The search for a cure for hemorrhagic fever is actually fascinating. Researchers are studying the pathogens that give rise to Ebola by looking back in time. A 2014 study published in the journal PeerJ identified the family of viruses to which Ebola belongs.

Ebola virus.

Ebola virus.

The authors of the study argue that better understanding Ebola’s evolutionary roots could “affect design of vaccines and programs that identify emerging pathogens.”….The study focused not on Ebola specifically, but the ancestors and family of Ebola to better understand where it may have come from. Both the Ebola virus and Marburg virus — also a hemorrhagic fever virus that belongs to the Filoviridae family — were found to be tied to ancient evolutionary lines, and they shared a common ancestor 16 to 23 million years ago.[1]

Derek Taylor, lead author of the study and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Buffalo, observed, “These things have been interacting with mammals for a long time, several million years.”[2]

Given the fact that pathogens may be lurking in our bodies and that contagion is facilitated by the ease of modern travel, it only follows that epidemics or pandemics can erupt at any time. Even worse, mutations can complicate the treatments of even known diseases. So the CDC is getting the message out: forewarned is forearmed. And they’re using pop culture to drive home the point.

So let’s see how the United States government is gearing up for the possibility of these end times and what they are telling us about how to stay safe from biters, walkers, decayers and the reanimated.

Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic

Some clever wags came up with an ingenious idea to get into our heads about this whole zombie apocalypse thing—write a graphic novel. Now, this is a smart move because more studies are showing the advantages inherent in reading literary fiction. Referencing 2006 and 2009 studies by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, respectively, Time magazine says:

That immersion [in reading] is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.[3]

(Click here to take a trip to zombieland with the CDC’s graphic novella, Zombie Pandemic. Look for the All-Hazards Emergency Kit at the end of the story.)

Zombies, Contagion and the Power of Empathy

Lest you think the CDC is acting as a fabulist exploiting today’s zombie craze, consider this example of why fiction may be the best teacher of real-world events:

Zombie popularity may be a perfect opportunity to increase awareness of rabies….Once infected, victims display overall weakness and low-grade fever. In the case of zombiism, the advent of fever typically indicates the transition from human into zombie. When affected by rabies, human movement is irregular; muscle spasms and convulsions accompany numbness and loss of muscle function….A person with rabies will experience several changes in mental state, such as increased anxiety, stress, restlessness, delirium, abnormal behavior, and even hallucinations. Zombies will also typically display a limited level of cognitive function, with aggressive behaviors strengthening as cognitive function declines….Much of the excitement and interest in our undead friends comes from such evaluations of shared human psyche between reality and a fictional postapocalyptic world….For example, to generate empathy for patients having degenerative diseases, like rabies, Alzheimer’s disease, or even cancer, parallels can be drawn to the sad realistic scenes of zombie films when the lone human (or zombie) survivor hangs on to dear life (or death) and sanity in the face of his encroaching demise.[4]

So the next time you curl up to watch The Walking Dead, rest assured you’re not just basking in heart-stopping gory entertainment. You’re creating complex cognitive and emotional links between you and the slice-and-dice, decapitating characters that tentatively populate the world of survivors (we all know that no one character is ultimately safe). You are being drawn into an emotional landscape both bereft of compassion to ensure survival, yet reflecting ferociously held bonds between characters. And the most horrifying part of this is that the scenario on-screen is not so far removed from what we see spread in headlines around the world about such terrors as Ebola, MERS and resistant strains of TB. All microscopic organism wielding deadly power, maliciously turning against us, their hosts, and eliciting the best and worst of the human condition. Truth can be stranger, and certainly more deadly, than fiction.

Zombies. Thanks for the heads-up, CDC. I’m getting my survival kit ready.

For further information

Also see the Ebola infographics that the CDC created to help inform populations coming into contact with the virus.

It may be an apocalypse, but the CDC has badges, widgets, e-cards, buttons, links and other stuff to show zombies can be really cool. Click here.

[1]  http://www.medicaldaily.com/ebolas-family-tree-disease-may-have-existed-23-million-years-much-longer-previously-307958

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/

[4] http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/19/5/AD-1905_article

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