Thursday, 23 February 2012

Real Life Zombie Diseases - How to be a zombie

Types of Zombie Diseases

Let us talk about Real zombies diseases, first let us decide what are the symptoms of being a zombie actually are. Obviously, the big one - you know, being literally, actually (un)dead - isn't something with any real world medical parallels, so we'll just have to restrict ourselves to diseases that make people act like the walking dead. That would include traits like rotting or dead flesh, a trance-like state that would rob people of any sign of higher cognitive function, an inability to communicate in anything more than moans and grunts, a slow, shuffling gait, and (if we're really lucky) a taste for human brains, or at the very least the desire to bite people.

Sleeping sickness

Sleeping sickness is the stuff nightmares are made of. The headline of this BBC News article from 2005 pretty much says it all: "The disease that makes people zombies." Prevalent in Africa, sleeping sickness is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma brucei and transmitted by the tsetse fly
Worse, there are still no vaccines or ways to prevent infection occurring once the tsetse fly bites a person. Even the available treatments are - to be charitable - less than perfect. Melarsoprol is one of the few treatments available (and that rather dubiously assumes that the average infected person has access to any medical care), but it's over fifty years old and contains enough arsenic to kill 1 in 20 people that are treated with it. And even if a patient survives the ordeal, they remain at risk of contracting the disease again later.
About 50,000 to 70,000 people die of sleeping sickness every year, although Krishna suspected that estimate was actually much too low. In Uganda, one in every three people is at risk of getting the disease, and some sixty million people remain under constant threat. So then, there are about 50,000 examples of the walking dead each year, although (perhaps mercifully) they don't remain walking for very long.


There isn't a disease, be it mental or physiological, that makes people want to eat other people, at least none as currently recognized by medical science. (Cannibalism isn't considered a mental illness in its own right, but rather as a part of a larger web of psychoses.) There are certain culture-specific mental conditions - Wendigo psychosis, observed in certain native American peoples, is one of the better examples - that make people think they are turning into cannibals, but that's about it.

Still, rabies can, under certain conditions, approximate some of the conditions of the zombie lust for brains. The rabies virus causes massive inflammation, or swelling, of the brain, and it's most often transmitted by bites from infected animals. About 55,000 people die annually from rabies, with almost all of these deaths occurring in Asia and Africa. Although vaccines do exist (indeed, it was Louis Pasteur's successful treatment of a rabies-infected child that brought us into the modern age of vaccinations), they have to be administered before the onset of symptoms if the patient is to survive.

Again, the symptoms of rabies sound rather like those of the walking dead: full or partial paralysis, mental impairment, agitation and strange behavior, mania, and finally delirium. It takes a bit of cherry-picking of symptoms, but one could put together a rabies patient with an inability to think clearly or communicate, difficulty walking, and manic aggression that takes the form of frequent attacks on humans.


Those of you who are up on your Greek roots already know where we're going with one: necrosis is death, specifically those of individual groups of cells before the organism as a whole dies. This isn't technically a disease but rather a condition with a lot of different possible causes. Cancer, poison, injury, and infection are all possible causes of premature cell death.

If we're being super-literal about what the walking dead really are, then a patient with necrotic tissue is maybe the closest equivalent. After all, a patient suffering from necrosis technically is partially dead, albeit still very much alive in all the important areas (the brain, the heart, and the rest of the vital organs, for a start) that we generally associate with the living.

Whatever its external (or, in the case of cancer or infarction, internal but extraordinary) cause, necrosis triggers a series of event that can lead to even greater negative effects outside the affected area. The dead tissue stops sending signals to the nervous system, and necrotic cells can release dangerous chemicals that hurt nearby, still healthy cells. If the lysosome membrane inside the cells is damaged, enzymes can be released that can also harm surrounding cells.

This chain reaction can cause the necrosis to spread (and if it spreads over a great enough area, it becomes gangrene) and can ultimately be fatal. The only way to cure the condition is through a process known as debridement, which is simply the removal of necrotic tissue. If the dead area is too large, this may require amputation.


Let's take a bit of a break and talk about something relatively less serious. ("Relatively" being very much the key word there.) We've talked about possible causes of zombie-like trances, cell death, and hyper-aggression. What about something a little more innocuous, like the iconic moans and grunts of the oncoming zombie horde? What could cause that?

Well, the best real-world equivalent is probably dysarthria, which is a disorder affecting the motor controls of human speech. Dysarthria is particularly appropriate because it's neurological in its origins, which ties in with the brain-based aspects of zombie lore. There are a lot of different causes of dysarthric speech, but all are characterized by a malfunction in the nervous system that makes it difficult to control the tongue, lips, throat, or lungs.

This in turn causes difficulty in articulation, which can take the form (among many possible manifestations) of an inability to communicate in more than unintelligible noises. The condition can be brought on by traumatic brain injury, metabolic diseases like Lou Gehrig's or Parkinson's, or a stroke, all of which lead to a loss of control over the vocal muscles. Possible affected areas include the ability to regulate the volume of speech, the ability to create the proper inflection, and, most importantly for our purposes, the ability to create the correct sounds of speech.


Both zombie folklore and leprosy have a long, long history. Armies of the flesh-eating undead can be traced all the way back to the roughly tenth century BCE Akkadian work The Epic of Gilgamesh, which drew on earlier Sumerian mythology and was one of the first substantial written works in human history. Cases of leprosy have been reported going back some four thousand years throughout Eurasia and northern Africa, including China, India, and Egypt. Considering a common feature of zombies is their rotting flesh and decaying body parts, it would seem like leprosy and its similar-sounding symptoms would be a natural inspiration for such stories.

Well...sort of. The truth is (as usual) rather more complicated. First of all, it's a myth that leprosy causes body parts to rot away and fall off - indeed, there really aren't any diseases that can actually make limbs fall off (although, as discussed earlier, necrosis can necessitate the amputation of dead limbs). Leprosy can cause damage and numbness in its victims, which could cause a slow, shuffling walk that might have inspired the gait that we associate with zombies. The main external symptom of leprosy is the outbreak of extensive skin lesions, which gives the skin a diseased, decaying appearance not unlike that of the common conceptions of zombies.

Fortunately, leprosy is pretty much under control at this point, certainly compared to sleeping sickness. Over 95% of people are naturally immune to the disease, and over fifteen million people have been cured of the disease in the last two decades. It's a remarkable turnaround for once of the most feared and stigmatized diseases in human history - indeed, for centuries leprosy evoked the same kind of irrational dread that we might now feel towards the dead rising from the graves en mass, ready to devour our brains.

If you know more ways to become a zombie, feel Free to share your views in Comments section below


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