The Biology of Zombies: A Primer – Part 3


Part 3


Rabies is a virus that has struck at the heart of mans’ fear for centuries.  It still stirs those feelings today, even though we have vaccines that can prevent people from dying.  That is, if it is caught in time.  Once a human starts showing symptoms of rabies, it is too late and that person will succumb to death.  Rabies itself is a horrible disease, causing dementia, anger, hallucinations, partial paralysis, anxiety and confusion.  Looking at those symptoms, we are somewhat close to zombies already, just add undead and you are essentially there.  The virus infects muscle or nervous tissue and travels through the nervous system of its victims, eventually attacking the brain. The virus is usually transferred through saliva from a bite.  This is due to high concentrations of the virus in the salivary glands. Even though we tend to worry about dogs with rabies, the more common vectors are skunks, bats, raccoons and foxes.

We have seen a similar zombie before called the “Rage” zombie from 28 Days Later.  Some argue its not a true zombie, as a zombie is the undead.  This zombie was more like a hyper-realistic rabies virus.  However, this fictional virus can be transferred by blood as well as through bites.  But many of the same rabies symptoms were present.  And to relate back to other post, a virus is like a zombie microbe, as it makes more of itself the same way a zombie makes more zombies.  Although rabies is not prevalent in the human population, there was a recent case from India in which a man was infected.  The man had been bitten and never treated for rabies and was already showing late symptoms when he was taken to the hospital for treatment.  Upon arrival, he became angry and disoriented, and had to be restrained.  He then bit an orderly.  However, The virus was not transferred.

Many of our creatures in literature are derived from our fear of rabies.  Understand that rabies has been known for quite some time. Society became aware that it could be transferred through a bite.  And if we look at that transfer, we can find, in part,  the origins of zombies, vampires, and werewolves, who all make others like them through biting.


Probability: Barring any major genetic changes to the virus, this probably won’t cause an undead zombie.  This virus is somewhat difficult to get, it doesn’t aresolize very well, and it;s fairly easy to identify organisms that are infected. If the virus were to be able to transfer more easily among humans, I think the potential exists that it could cause an outbreak.  The issue always comes back to biting.  Even though this is transferred through bites, like zombies, its too easy to quarantine and vaccinate for rabies.  Also, biting is a slow way for a virus to make its way through a population.  Take the rabies virus, heighten the rage, anger, hallucinations, confusion and partial paralysis; speed up replication and then make it blood-borne or airborne and you have yourself a zombie apocalypse.  But that is a lot of “ifs”. That is some serious evolution.



We could go on for days about what could create zombies, the pros and cons of each, the validity. We, of course, may never know until we have an actual zombie.  We can argue what constitutes a zombie, something that dies and is reanimated, or simply an infected person with “zombie-like” symptoms.  However, that is no reason to not stay vigilant and prepared. Zombies, possible or not possible?  The answer is not the answer.  The answer is in questioning.  We learn the most by stating the hypotheticals, thinking and predicting.  By simply trying to come to an answer we are learning more about a probability, and thus becoming more aware and prepared.


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