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Op-Ed: Real world illnesses that could cause a zombie apocalypse

Let’s face it — we’re fascinated by the concept of a zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead draws in 14 million viewers each week making it one of the top-rated TV shows in America. World War Z pulled in more than $200 million in the US alone. And zombie-themed video game The Last of Us topped more than six million copies sold. But as thrilling as all this faux terror is, we’d likely be less than excited to find ourselves in the midst of a real-life zombie crisis. Here’s a look at some real world illnesses and health risks that could spark such an occurrence.

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)
Commonly known as mad cow disease, this virus attacks the nervous system and mostly occurs in cows but can also spread to people that eat infected meat. The virus attacks the nervous system and causes mental illness and physical complications. Mad cow disease slowly destroys the brain of victims. If humans eat infected tissue, they develop a version of the illness called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) which causes personality changes, muscle coordination problems, impaired judgment and loss of speech. Sounds very zombie-like to me. While CJD and mad cow are rare, viruses mutate and you never know what could happen in our nation of avid meat eaters.

Datura Stramonium and Datura Metel
Voodoo is one of the earliest associations with the word zombie. In Haiti, among followers of Vodun, zombification is used as a punishment for severe crimes. The two datura plants are known as “zombie cucumber” and act as a powerful neurotoxin. Once the plants are ground into a powder, a person is dosed with them which causes a delirious state. They experience disorientation and hallucinations. Once the victim is suitably zombified, they are forced to work as slave labor to atone for their crimes. It is feasible that these neurotoxins could be administered in a widespread fashion to control the masses. While they wouldn’t be contagious, you might be able to train pet zombies to wreak havoc.

Scientists say that rabies is already a zombie virus. Untreated infection is nearly 100 percent lethal, and before it kills you, it changes your behavior and can even encourage biting which spreads the disease through saliva. Remember Old Yeller? Animals with rabies avoid bright lights much like cinema zombies. The main obstacle to rabies causing a full-blown zombie epidemic is that once it’s active, it kills you. To make it more likely to cause an apocalypse, scientists could mutate the virus to improve longevity while contagious. The longer you’re around and biting, the larger the impact. Currently, rabies can incubate for up to a year, meaning this would be a slow end to the world.

Bath Salts
This new synthetic drug purports to act as a combination of cocaine, LSD, MDMA, and methamphetamine. Known formally as mephedrone (and on the street as bath salts), this compound was synthesized first in 1929 but then found new life as a designer drug in recent years. Usually snorted, bath salts cause many zombie-like behaviors including hallucinations, psychotic episodes and aggression. Users have said the drug has made them even feel evil and dark. Bath salts have gotten a rap as a zombie drug because some abusers have gotten bite-happy while high. Since there’s not a contagion factor, it would have to be an engineered apocalypse by disseminating the drug accidentally (or intentionally).

Engineered Viral Bioweapons
The most serious risk of a zombie apocalypse would be one that’s intentionally designed to wreak havoc. ISIS revealed to an extremist website that its followers are willing to expose themselves to Ebola to spread it to the Unites States either through direct contact or by contaminating water or air supplies. Wageningen UR, a research center in the Netherlands recently created the first artificial virus. Scientists designed it as a way to deliver pharmaceuticals directly to diseased cells. However, this tech could likely be used to deliver devastating illnesses or an engineered combination of several viruses that would emulate zombie symptoms.

The risk of The Walking Dead evolving from the Zeitgeist to real life is slight, but compelling enough that many have stocked up in case of a zombie outbreak. And Cornell University statisticians have even modeled where you’re most likely to survive a zombie crisis (hint: it’s not the big city). The bottom line is that while it’s not probable that we’ll face a zombie apocalypse in the foreseeable future, it’s plausible. And that’s enough to keep us fascinated and AMC’s Sunday night ratings soaring.

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