Looking for interesting ways to enliven annual inservices and training on infectious diseases?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is drawing attention to emerging infectious disease outbreaks and other mass casualty events through creatures often depicted with voracious appetites and a relentless, limping pursuit of the living: zombies.
For example, the CDC has posted a “Zombie Pandemic”1 graphic novel that includes this opening warning from a news commentator: “Several people have been hospitalized after a strange virus began spreading rapidly through the Southeast. Scientists haven’t identified the virus yet, but symptoms include slow movement, slurred speech, and violent tendencies. The [CDC] is recommending that people distance themselves from anyone displaying these symptoms.”
Our protagonist couple and their dog gather supplies and shelter in place. The news media announce that “the CDC is working with local health departments on a vaccine. Until then, hunker down and don’t go outside unless you have to.”
Public health communication can be tricky, as the CDC tries to engender urgency and action by warning about an emerging infectious threat like Ebola without setting off panic that will undermine the response. Indeed, we saw the latter with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014, when some returning U.S. healthcare workers were locked down and quarantined rather than being allowed to return home and monitor their symptoms as the CDC recommended.
A Peer-Reviewed Zombie Report
The well-established metaphor of the zombie, a misbegotten mainstay of horror books and films, provides a way to underscore the threat of a contagion and deliver a few preparation messages without setting off a panic. How serious is this effort? In an unusual move for a clinical journal, the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases publication recently ran an article by authors who study and teach zombie literature and film.2
In an accompanying CDC podcast, the zombie education approach to infectious disease was discussed by lead author Joanna Verran, BSc, MSc, PhD, a professor emeritus in the microbiology department of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom.
“As a microbiology teacher, I always felt that it was important that my students didn’t just learn about microbiology, but were able to talk about [it] to other audiences, even their families,” she said.
With film and fiction using zombies as surrogates for infectious disease, Verran livened up her lectures with the walking dead.
“The zombie is sort of a visible embodiment of, essentially, an invisible agent,” she says. “In many cases now, it’s some sort of biological infection, [often] a virus. So, lots of different zombie books start with virus infections.”
The many correlations between zombies and viral infections include, for example, that once the victim is attacked, he or she becomes a carrier.
“Typically, you become a zombie, so there is the transmissibility of infection,” Verran said. “There may be incubation periods, and so you can get some idea of the epidemiology of a particular type of zombie infection.”
The zombie metaphor uses a cultural horror icon to allow rapid general understanding and visualization of a condition threatening the populace. This, in turn, highlights the public health reaction, disease immunity and progression, and the behavior of survivors.
“How do they contain, or can they contain the infected?” she says. “Can they prevent the infection spreading — can they control it? Can they kill it, can they inactivate it? So, the zombie does allow you to explore many aspects of the epidemiology of disease.”
Fittingly, the CDC zombie story ends with “To be continued….”
- CDC. Preparedness 101: The Zombie Pandemic. Available at: https://bit.ly/2FElpez.
- Verran J, Reyes X. Emerging Infectious Literatures and the Zombie Condition. Emerg Infect Dis. 2018;24(9):1774-1778. https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid2409.170658.