Science of the Zombie Apocalypse

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Can a superbug cause an actual zombie apocalypse? Dave Engelthaler, director of programs and research for T-Gen, has given lectures on that topic at the Arizona Science Center and will tell us about research concerning the science behind a possible zombie apocalypse.

Ted Simons: Finally tonight, we ask the pressing question -- Can a super bug cause a Zombie Apocalypse? Dave Engelthaler is the director of programs and research for TGen and lectures on that very topic at the Arizona science center. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

Dave Engelthaler: Thank you.

Ted Simons: This is the first time I've ever been able to say Zombie Apocalypse on this particular program.

Dave Engelthaler: I'm surprised about that.

Ted Simons: Thank you for that. What is a zombie, what is a Zombie Apocalypse -- What are we talking about here?

Dave Engelthaler: I think zombies are really in the popular culture right now, and I think it's a good hook for us to talk about infectious disease, how they emerge, mutate, how they spread. Of course Ebola is on everybody's mind. So it's something that people are certainly thinking about. In zombies, "The Walking Dead," they make it so popular, people worry about it.

Ted Simons: During your lecture I imagine you get folks attention when you start talking about zombies.

Dave Engelthaler: Absolutely. I think zombies kind of comes to maybe an innate fear of, we don't know what's out there, something we can't control. And a lot of this post-apocalyptic things happen in different eras, sometimes it's nuclear war, and now it's infectious disease. Ebola has heightened that awareness.

Ted Simons: In neurological aspects, plain appearance aspects, there are some folks who are afflicted with certain conditions in which it's very similar to what you're seeing on these shows.

Dave Engelthaler: Yeah. That's a good point. I think when we talk about zombies, that's the culmination of different diseases. We don't have a zombie disease. There is no Zombie Apocalypse in humans.

Ted Simons: Oh, man!

Dave Engelthaler: Yet. But there are a number of diseases which -- That might make people think about zombies. Whether it's something like rabies, where it actually affects you neurologically, makes you want to tack potentially makes you attack other people, bite them, that's how the virus is spread, and that's being driven by infections. That's kind of zombielike. Other things may cause decaying flesh, skin-eating disease. A number of other ones as well.

Ted Simons: So basically, is there such a thing as maybe viruses or parasites at that level, are there zombies? Or once anything in this world is dead, it's dead?

Dave Engelthaler: Yeah. So I think it's a good question. There are a lot of diseases that humans don't get. That other animals get. That insects get. That if they occurred in humans, we would think it was the Zombie Apocalypse. Not that it reanimates them from the dead, but it's an infection -- Take, for instance, what we call the zombie ants where they get a fungal infection that forces the ant to crawl on a leaf, under the leaf bite down on the center vein where the nutrients are coming from so it sucks up the nutrients, and the fungus is replicating and a giant stalk erupts out of the ant's head and it can float down and affect more ants. It's forcing the ant to do its bidding. If something happened like that to humans, we would think of the Zombie Apocalypse. There's a number of very interesting diseases where we have a whole war being waged that we don't normally see.

Ted Simons: We don't normally see them down there. Are there threats that kind of a thing could happen on our level?

Dave Engelthaler: For human infections, what we do know is diseases emerge all the time. Ebola has been around for a very long time, but we just started to see it emerge out of the jungle. SARS came out of places like China where people lived very closely with animals and it moved throughout the world. It has a close cousin in Saudi Arabia, called MERS. There are other viruses that are continually emerging. So can something new emerge? Absolutely. Causing something like these dreadful diseases we see in animals hopefully not. What we have is a number of ways to respond to diseases that animals can't.

Ted Simons: But we can be surprised. It seems like in this world nothing is surprising science anymore. But this -- Something could develop somewhere that could surprise us.

Dave Engelthaler: Well, either if it's changes in a virus like the flu virus changes every year. We're expecting the flu to come. But it's pretty nasty, kills 30,000 Americans or more every year. Then we have the swine flu come out of Mexico out of nowhere, spread around the world, probably faster than any disease in the history of our planet. And that's what's going to surprise us, how things move so quickly around the planet. That's part of the reason, globalization is why we're seeing cases show up here and there in the U.S. Where it wouldn't have happened before. People weren't coming out of the jungle to the U.S. Now people are coming out of the jungle going into major large cities in Africa and those people are moving around, or doctors are going back and forth. This globalization is allowing us to see diseases we've never seen.

Ted Simons: Does that contact mean we might be better prepared for these kinds of diseases?

Dave Engelthaler: I think we are definitely better prepared on a number of levels. We are better prepared than we were 50 years ago because we better understand how diseases move. We have better sanitation, better health care at least in the developed world. We have better tracking systems. But on the other hand, we clearly are not prepared to deal with this. I say we as a species, we're not prepared to deal with a major outbreak like Ebola in large cities in Africa. We could handle it in villages and it would burn itself out. Now we have no way of handling it. It's a major, major disaster we weren't prepared for. Are we prepared in the U.S.? We're going to have a couple of cases. And we'll probably have a couple more. But they're not spreading like wildfire like they are in developing countries.

Ted Simons: So as far as zombie science is concerned, and there is such a thing.

Dave Engelthaler: There are people who make a living out of studying and probably really hoping zombies occur. I'm not one of those, I am an epidemiologist and an infectious disease researcher but I find it fascinating that tie between popular culture and what's going on in the real world.

Ted Simons: What can we learn from zombie science?

Dave Engelthaler: There's a couple things. One is, there's better ways to -- For us to think about modeling how diseases may move in a population. Thinking about different transmissions like if it's a biting type of transmission. There are things we need to learn about for preparedness. How do we respond to different types, if it's an aerosol borne, how do we as businesses or people living in home, hospitals, how does everybody prepare for disasters such as a Zombie Apocalypse or such as an earthquake or tornado, which we do see in Arizona.

Ted Simons: Very interesting stuff. I'm glad we got you on, a chance to say "Zombie Apocalypse."

Dave Engelthaler: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: Wednesday on "Arizona Horizon," a new report on the nation's top cities and states for job creation. And we'll hear about how the Arizona opera is expanding its repertoire. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Dave Engelthaler:Director of programs and research, T-Gen;

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