Could Zombies Walk Among Us?

An image of an infectious bacteria being consumed by a phagocyte, or white blood cell.

By Rhia Singh ‘17

Zombies are thought to exist purely in the realm of fantasy, but they may be much closer than they appear.

Zombies are usually thought of as undead humans that crave brains, and they usually walk with stiff legs and with arms that are perpendicular to the floor. However, according to Anjali Singh’ 17, from the Biological Science Major, “If you Google the definition of zombie, you would probably find a picture of me on a Monday.” There are multiple definitions of zombies but are any actually real?
It is unlikely that there will be any zombies in the future but there are diseases that can cause symptoms similar to those of zombies.
For example, Human African Trypanosomiasis (HAT), or sleeping sickness is a parasitic infection found in Sub-Saharan Africa. Humans are infected by the HAT parasite through the tsetse fly.
HAT is a chronic infection so the person can be infected for months or even years without exhibiting symptoms. When symptoms emerge, the patient is already in an advanced stage in which the central nervous system is affected. During this time, patients exhibit changes of behavior, confusion, sensory disturbances and poor coordination, along with disturbance of the sleep cycle, which gives the disease its name.
Although sleeping sickness does share similar symptoms with zombies, it’s very unlikely it will cause an apocalypses anytime soon.
Another disease with symptoms similar to that of a ‘zombie virus’ is Rabies. It is in the Rhabdoviridae family of viruses, under the genus Lyssavirus, and it is transmitted through the bite of rabid animals, such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes.
Similar to the sleeping disease, Rabies infects the central nervous system. After entering the host, Rabies, travels to the spinal cord through the peripheral nervous system’s afferent nerves. From the spinal cord, Rabies travels to the brain and begins to replicate itself while it destroys the host’s nerve cells. Then, the virus travels through the efferent nerves to the salivary glands. This causes hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing as well as insomnia, anxiety, confusion, partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms. These symptoms seem like they could be the characteristics of a zombie.
But, for the Rabies virus to trigger a zombie apocalypse, it would need to be more contagious. Usually, only one human is infected from a bite, and pet vaccinations prevent a much of the spread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annually, only one in three people report contracting the disease.
For rabies to become more contagious, it would have to be transmitted by air, meaning it would have to “borrow” traits from another virus, such as influenza. Dr. Levine, an AP Biology teacher at Brooklyn Tech, stated, “viruses mutate all the time and become more virulent,” however unrelated viruses do not usually hybridise because their DNA is incompatible.
Although, it is improbable that there will be a zombie apocalypse; Konstantin Drallios’ 17, from the Gateway to Medicine Major, commented that, “It is very interesting that humans can imagine such improbable occurrences as a zombie apocalypse. I think we imagine apocalyptic scenarios because the danger is alluring but also because they are so improbable.” There is no zombie apocalypse in the near future.

That is, not until the next Monday morning.

(Image from Hospital-associated MRSA bacteria. Source: NIAID via Flickr.)

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