The following article was prompted by a single question that arose in my mind while watching AMC’s new television series, The Walking Dead. Why are gunshots to the head or massive brain trauma the only way to effectively kill zombies? When the creators of The Walking Dead television series revealed that the zombie outbreak may have been precipitated by a virus in episode 1×05 “Wildfire”, I instantly thought of the similarities between the fictional walking dead virus and the very real rabies virus.
In The Walking Dead episode 1×05, “Wildfire”, the survivors discover that Jim was bitten by a zombie and within sixteen hours his symptoms included fever, headache, fatigue, confusion, hallucinations and paralysis. Those are exactly the same symptoms that the National Institutes of Health lists for the latter stages of the rabies virus in humans. However, the incubation stage of rabies is much longer, generally one week to several months, and the disease has a 99.9 percent fatality rate once notable symptoms begin.
The unnamed virus shown in The Walking Dead appears to reside in the brain stem, and it is transmitted by zombie bite or other means of blood-to-blood contact with a zombie through open wounds or mucus membranes. The virus in The Walking Dead does not appear to affect animals. The rabies virus terminates its host when it reaches the brain; the virus travels along the central nervous system when it enters the body until it finds its destination. The rabies virus can be transmitted from any warm-blooded rabid animal to humans by bite, scratch, or saliva-to-mucus membrane contact. Presently, rabid bats cause the most human deaths by rabies in the United States. Worldwide, the majority of human deaths caused by rabies (around 55,000 annually, according to the World Health Organization) occur in Africa and Asia when people are attacked by feral rabid dogs.
The zombies on The Walking Dead exhibit lethargic movement from afar but as they move closer to potential victims their collective agitation and aggression intensify. There are different stages of rabies which prompt the infected to have behavior ranging from docile to ferocious, though not generally homicidal. Rabies comes from the Latin word rabere, which means “rave” or “be mad”. Another related ancient word is rabhas, which means “to do violence” in Sanskrit. Rabies is classified in the Lyssavirus group of diseases. The word lyssa was was first documented in The Illiad around the 8th Century, and was used to describe a raging dog.
With the accidental destruction of the TS-19 sample by Centers for Disease Control scientist, Dr. Edwin Jenner in The Walking Dead, there appears to be no hope on the horizon for a cure to the disease in that narrative. Fortunately, a treatment for rabies does exist. If you or someone you know is bitten by animal that potentially has the rabies virus, immediately cleanse the bite wound thoroughly with soap and water, and treat it with a serious antibacterial agent, like iodine. Go on to dress the wound according to the severity of the bite. Then, if possible, capture the animal and seek professional medical help.
AMC, “The Walking Dead”
Centers for Disease Control, “Rabies”
National Institutes of Health, “Rabies”
World Health Organization, “Rabies”
Google Books, “Vaccines for Biodefense and Emerging and Neglected Diseases”