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Zombie myth has scientific roots

October 31, 2013

If there’s one thing scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation share with zombies, it’s an appreciation for brains. Granted, zombies want to eat those brains, while OMRF researchers just like using them.

With Halloween here, it seems like zombies are everywhere. Whether you caught the bug from “The Walking Dead” or “World War Z,” it’s hard to steer clear of these shambling, flesh-hungry monsters. And believe it or not, part of the zombie myth is rooted in biomedical science.

“There are quasi-scientific roots to almost all of your classic monsters,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “And zombies are no exception.”

In movies, TV and popular fiction, zombies were once people who were transformed by a horribly mutated—and contagious—virus or parasite. “Considering recent scares over both avian and swine flu,” said Prescott, “that might not seem so far-fetched.”

In fact, said Prescott, a disease called African trypanosomiasis, or “sleeping sickness,” shares some traits of a zombie infection. A parasite called Trypanosoma brucei is delivered in the bite of a tsetse fly. After initially causing headache, fever, joint pain and itching, the parasite invades the brain, where it disrupts the sleep cycle and triggers confusion, tremors and paralysis.

"This is an infection that carries nightmarish qualities. In the final stages, it can reduce many of its victims to a zombie-like state before they fall into a coma and experience organ failure, which leads to death,” Prescott said.

Although there is no vaccine, Prescott says that we needn’t fear an outbreak of sleeping sickness. “America’s climate is not amenable to the tsetse fly, and without the tsetse fly, this illness doesn’t exist,” he said.

What’s more, said Prescott, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is always on the lookout for new outbreaks. Indeed, the CDC—jokingly—already has a “Zombie Preparedness” section on its website. "Our public health infrastructure has plenty of experience dealing with emerging influenza pandemics, so a zombie apocalypse should be no problem,” said Prescott.

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