Zombies and the walking dead: deadly serious or just plain silly?
Zombies revolutionized the paramilitary survival industry. Survivalists in years past were a fairly marginalized mob. The general public feared them and the government had a pesky habit of burning them alive. Nowadays, however, zombies have put survival prepping firmly within the realm of civilized company. I actually overheard a conversation among a group of senior citizens at a local restaurant recently concerning the finer points of preparing for the coming zombie apocalypse. However, as with most fantasy constructs, might there be a kernel of truth to the zombie legend?
Haiti is generally acknowledged as the locale where zombie legends first found their legs. Haitian voodoo rituals were themselves birthed in the West African paganism that perfused African natives prior to their being kidnapped into slavery and forcibly removed to Haiti. In the African versions powerful Bokor or Witch Doctors were said to be able to reanimate the dead and force them to do their dark bidding. It was these original folk tales that followed enslaved Africans out of the Dark Continent and served as seed for the Haitian zombie mythos.
Interestingly, there is a strikingly-similar creature that resonates from European mythology called the Revenant. The Revenant, from the Latin for "Returning," was also said to be a reanimated corpse and the associated legends were widespread in the Middle Ages. The Revenant was purported to be inspiration for a great deal of vampire mythology as well as Shelley's Frankenstein. The dead suspected of being Revenants were typically exhumed, decapitated and then had their hearts excised, burned or both.
A fair amount of effort has been expended studying the Haitian zombie concept from a scientific perspective. There is rumored to be a powerful drug made from Tetrodotoxin, an immensely poisonous compound derived from the puffer fish, combined with a dissociative drug called Datura, itself also a natural product. The combination of these two drugs, when inoculated into an open wound, was rumored to produce a death-like state. Victims would awake from this condition, frequently after burial, exhibiting a state of psychosis. As to whether any bizarre behavior might be attributable to the neurological effects of these drugs or the psychological trauma of being buried alive is best left to the philosophers.
Modern medicine orbits around two broad categories of infectious organisms. Bacteria are somewhat akin to tiny microscopic plants and are responsible for everything from staph skin structure infections and strep throat to urinary tract infections and STDs such as gonorrhea and chlamydia. It is for infections by the malevolent variants that we use antibiotic drugs.
Viruses, by contrast, are much smaller and trickier beasties. Up until fairly recently, fighting viral infections was solely the responsibility of your body's own immune system. Though there are some effective medications for a few viral infections these days, treatment is typically supportive-- water, rest and creature comforts until the disease runs its course. Typical examples of viral infections include head colds, genital herpes, the classic 24-hour stomach virus and HIV.
By contrast, prion diseases are just plain weird. Prions are self-replicating proteins that are technically not even alive. Prions are improperly-folded proteins that have the bad grace to cause healthy proteins in a living host to follow their lead and refold into detrimental forms. Prions can be contracted through ingestion or contact with infected tissues, frequently the brain. The really spooky part about prion diseases is they are utterly untreatable and the prions themselves are frequently fairly heat-stable. This means cooking may not neutralize the infectious particles.
One of the first prion diseases studied was kuru. This malady was originally documented among the Fore people of Papua New Guinea in the 1950's. These natives were cannibals and it was found that women and children contracted kuru at a rate eight times greater than the men in these communities. It was eventually found that the men got the choicest cuts from vanquished human enemies leaving the women and children to consume the undesirable leftovers like brains where the largest density of infectious prions reside.
Kuru is a degenerative neurological disorder that is a type of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE). This means these prions self-replicate in brain tissue leaving little microscopic sponge-like voids. Initial symptoms include truncal ataxia (a loss of coordination among central muscle systems), unsteady stance and gait, tremors and slurred speech. Starting to sound familiar? As if that isn't spooky enough, there is a latent phase between exposure and first symptoms of between 5 to 20 years.
A prion disease called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is endemic to cows. Daniel Gajdusek, Michale Alpers, and Baruch Blumberg won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1976 for their research demonstrating prion diseases were infectious across species, so this is of great concern to humans. We Americans do consume quite a lot of beef.
A related malady in humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), is also caused by prions and has a comparably dire prognosis. There is a form of CJD caused by a spontaneous genetic mutation and it is currently theorized the kuru outbreak in New Guinea began with a single host developing this disease spontaneously around 1900. Apparently somebody ate that poor unfortunate guy for dinner and the cycle began in earnest.
A related prion illness is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and it has been identified in deer, elk and moose in North America. CWD prions are most concentrated in the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes, so as though I needed another reason not to eat those parts, it is a good idea to avoid eating these organs in game animals. CWD results in chronic weight loss and such weird behaviors as teeth grinding, listlessness, blank facial expressions (a subjective assessment at best when it comes to the emotional state of a moose), hyperexcitability and decreased interaction with other animals. CWD is invariably lethal and is of great concern given the prevalence of deer, elk and moose hunting in America.
It is the British outbreak in the '80's of BSE that prevents anyone in the USA from donating blood if they have spent more than three months in the UK between 1980 and 1996. As this disease has such a long latency period the fear is it could be transmitted via infected beef and then years go by before anyone knows a population was affected. Given that typical cooking temperatures do not deactivate the deadly prions, quarantine of affected humans and prophylactic slaughter of affected cow populations are at present the only effective controls.
WHAT IT MEANS
The bottom line is there are indeed diseases that have been documented wherein the sufferers stagger about zombie-like in a state of psychosis fully capable of inflicting violence upon others. You actually contract some of these diseases by eating affected brain tissue. Some of these illnesses have such long latency periods a person could be infected for years before showing any symptoms. What is worse is some of these maladies can be passed by conventionally-sterilized surgical instruments or even hamburgers. This could theoretically allow entire populations to be affected before effective controls could be instituted to prevent the spread of the disease.
Even so, as a physician I don't fret much about epidemics of prion diseases turning the population into brain-eating zombies. As an American I will continue to enjoy a good hamburger just as much as the next guy.
Little will start a spirited conversation faster than asking a couple of gun guys what they recommend for the ideal zombie gun. As a rugged individualist, I typically set aside a little ammo labeled the "Zombie Stash" and maintain my weapons such that I could get to them quickly in a crisis. Whether driven by irrational politicians who have raised living for the moment to an art form, the potentiality of natural disasters, or possible terrorist action, I see little harm in preparing for a rainy day. The fact such preparations would be hypothetically effective against battalions of zombie ghouls is just gravy.