In recent years, the zombie apocalypse concept has been explored in books such as Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” films such as “Zombieland,” and the television series “The Walking Dead.” The violent survival drama of this imaginary situation appeals to fans of popular culture. In scientific terms, the question eventually arises- is a zombie apocalypse theoretically possible? The answer, fortunately, is- probably not.
A zombie plague is portrayed in popular culture as a syndrome in which an infectious agent pervades global human society, causing victims to lose their sanity and develop a craving for human flesh. This infectious agent is apparently transmitted to new human victims by bite, in cases in which the victim is able to escape being eaten but is bitten in the process.
Oddly enough, a similar syndrome is deeply embedded in the history of human illness- it is called rabies! Rabies is an infectious virus which can be transmitted to human victims through a bite- usually from an infected wild animal. Throughout many centuries of human history, this disease has horrified communities. In the late nineteenth century, the French medical researcher Louis Pasteur studied rabies. Through careful scientific experimentation, he was able to develop a vaccine that, when administered quickly enough to a bitten victim, enabled the human body to overcome the disease and survive. Deaths from rabies have become almost nonexistent in humans as a result of Pasteur’s work. It is worth mention that rabies as an infectious agent is not very efficient- because humans who see a wild animal or another human behaving strangely tend to become alarmed and run away.
There is one other human brain disease that has certain resemblances to “zombie infection.” That disease is BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) or “Mad Cow Disease.” This disorder is deadly, by eventually causing the human brain to degenerate into a spongy structure. It is transmitted by eating the flesh of infected animals. This rather rare illness appeared in a few humans only in recent years, from eating the meat of infected cows. The disease is spread among cattle in an odd way. Some cattle ranchers had used the strange procedure of using protein from dead cattle to feed living cattle, as a cost effective way of providing protein to those cattle. It was clearly an unwise measure, which was responsible for spreading the disease. Government regulation has essentially worked as regards the effort to eradicate BSE. Clearly, as regards zombie infection, there are clear differences between that imaginary illness and the real illness of BSE. The biggest difference is that BSE is not transmitted through bites but rather by the victim eating the infected organism. This obviously would not be a danger in the case of real zombies.
Is it possible to imagine a situation in which zombie infection could become a real disease with deadly impacts on the global human population? There are several problems with the concept. First, such a disease does not currently exist. It would have to be created in a laboratory by human biological warfare researchers. Such researchers, however, would not waste their time on such a project. Diseases already exist that are much easier to transmit. Influenza, for example, can be easily transmitted to millions of human victims by breathing- a much more workable method of transmission than biting. In terms of efficient transmission of a biological agent, HIV is actually far more successful than rabies or BSE- which explains why it has claimed millions of lives. In the case of HIV, the victim at first looks no different from anyone else. Sexual attraction takes over, and the virus is transmitted through normal human behaviors. Much later, both participants in the sexual contact die from the disease. Zombie infection as a biological warfare agent would be inefficient and of limited effectiveness. The obvious situation of being infected- sores, missing body parts, a vacant expression and shambling walk- would stimulate fear and horror in uninfected persons who would take action to escape the infected.
In addition to these issues, the fictional portrayal of zombie infection flies in the face of actual biology. The human body infected by zombie infection is portrayed as able to survive infection indefinitely, and go without eating for years. Cellular biology does not work this way. An infectious agent responsible for this degree of human inattention to actual physical needs would cause death quickly. In essence, the zombie infection is imagined as something that conveys immortality. This is simply not a realistic concept. There are actual possible potential events that could claim millions or billions of human lives. High on this list would be nuclear war, global warming, a Flu pandemic, or a strike from a large meteor. Zombie apocalypse has served as grist for many entertaining and scary works of fiction, but must be excluded from this real world list of dangers to the human race.