What would a real zombie virus outbreak look like? Experts weigh in

We’re all glued to the popular TV series “The Walking Dead,” and having nightmares about the worst of disease outbreaks in the middle of the cold and flu season. Boston got a glimpse of what a zombie outbreak could look like when “the living dead” recently took over Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Even though the AMC show is fictional, and the zombies walking around Boston this week for Halloween festivities aren’t real, it still leaves us wondering:

What would a zombie virus outbreak look like? Does a real virus exist? How would it spread? Here’s a look at the “science” behind the fictional disease, according to two science fiction writers who have had a hand in creating the zombie phenomenon.

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Autopsy of a zombie
An illustration from “The Zombie Autopsies.”
© Copyright Andrea Sparacio (artsparrow)

1. The virus would probably be man-made

“I don’t think you could ever have a bug evolving in nature that would make zombies,” wrote Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, a psychiatrist and self- proclaimed “observer of the living dead,” in an email.

Schlozman is author of “The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notes from the Apocalypse,” a science fiction novel that details the adventure of a few doctors who attempt to find a cure for the virus by conducting autopsies on captured zombies. Schlozman names the virus Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Defiency (ANSD) or “Zombiesm” in his book.

Schlozman’s characters come to the conclusion that the virus was a man-made combination (engineered by evil hedge fund managers). He wrote that it was made “using influenza as the vector (the carrying organism) with prions in the tail (prions cause things like Mad Cow Disease) and then some other virus that attacks the ventromedial hypothalamus. That’s the region of the brain involved with knowing you’re eating enough. Certain viruses (strains of the adeno virus or the Borna virus) can do this.”

The closest mimicking case in the natural world is the toxoplasmosis infection, said Dr. Scholzman. This virus changes behavior in its host so that an animal might aggressively attack its normal predator. (Think of a rat turning around and running to attack a cat.)

“That allows the contagion to utilize the host as a vector,” he said. “A zombie shambles towards humans with — in the case of “Shaun of the Dead”— deadly cricket bats ready to bludgeon them. The main difference is that the rodents don’t try to eat the cat. That’s the rub that the zombie story adds to make things even funkier.”

2. Once infected, you would feel like this:

The zombie virus would debilitate its human hosts in stages, according to Max Brooks (The New York Times bestselling author of the book “World War Z” that inspired the summer movie by the same name):

This excerpt of symptoms is pulled from the beginning of Brooks’s second book, “The Zombie Survival Guide”:

Hour 1: Pain and discoloration (brown-purple) of the infected area. Immediate clotting of the wound (provided the infection came from a wound).

Hour 5: Fever (99—103 degrees F), chills, slight dementia, vomiting, acute pain in the joints.

Hour 8: Numbing of extremities and infected area, increase fever (103—106 degrees F), increased dementia, loss of muscular coordination.

Hour 11: Paralysis in the lower body, overall numbness, slowed heart rate.

Hour 16: Coma.

Hour 20: Heart stoppage. Zero brain activity.

Hour 23: Reanimation.

3. How the virus would spread:

An airborne bug similar to the strain in influenza would work, according to Schlozman.

“For there to a real pandemic, the contagion would have to be airborne,” Scholzman wrote in his email. “Hard to imagine, for example, a zombie virus that is spread and takes over the world via biting. That’d be like a rabies epidemic.”

In the appendix of “The Zombie Autopsies,” Schlozman includes a fictional medical journal article where his made-up doctor characters composed their findings after conducting autopsies on zombies (and losing a few of their own to the virus in the process).

The fictional doctors note the virus’s quick spread across the globe, causing devastation at cities with large populations. In “The Zombie Autopsies,” the zombie virus thrives in warmer climates, where the virus survives and spreads more quickly. (This makes hot and humid Georgia still a likely location for “The Walking Dead.”)

In 2012, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched its own “Zombie Preparedness” campaign to increase public awareness around emergency preparedness. “If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack,” said CDC director Dr. Ali Khan on its official website.

So who’s packing their Go Bag and hand sanitizer right NOW!? Luckily, we don’t have to worry about that. But if you’re concerned about the very real influenza virus, check out these tips to help you prepare for this unfortunate reality.