What Zombie Movies Can Teach Us About Public Health

I’m going to commit a no-no. Bloggers are probably not supposed to re-post articles from the past, but that’s exactly how I’m going to start off.

As a public health student and a zombie enthusiast, this Op-Ed for the Yale Daily News combined two of things I love most. With an virulence rate of 1.00 and fatality rate of 1.00 (or 0, depending on how you look at it), zombism is a public health worker’s worst nightmare.

Originally printed in the April 8, 2009 Opinions section of the Yale Daily News.
( http://yaledailynews.com/articles/view/28543 )

Berk: Zombie movies can teach us

By Justin Berk

Is Yale prepared for a zombie attack?

After wasting hours of time studying for tests, writing senior essays or building Styrofoam dinosaur dioramas, many students forget to focus on the inevitable zombie apocalypse. Once the crisis hits, where will the unprepared student body turn? The political science majors are too soft, Directed Studies freshmen are too inexperienced and those math kids will probably just stay in the library working on problem sets. Who can possibly be our zombie saviors?

Enter public health enthusiasts.

If you’ve ever seen a zombie movie, you’ve seen an introductory guide to public health. The flesh-eating undead are an epidemiologist’s worst nightmare, but they can teach us a lot about public health crises and begin a philosophical discourse on the trade-offs between individual liberties and public safety.

Whether students learn them from an HIV surveillance internship or from watching “The Evil Dead 2,” there are four vital public health themes that everyone should know.

First, epidemics can strike at any time. Whether caused by medical experimentations of the rage virus (“28 Days Later”), pollution of 2-4-5 Trioxin (“The Return of the Living Dead”) or unusual moon alignment (“Night of the Living Dead”), a virus can appear quickly and spread rapidly. Without adequate resources, preparation or knowledge of the disaster, uninfected individuals face a heavy disadvantage compared to those who understand the risks of disease. Educational public health warnings are important. Pay attention next time: Get a flu vaccine.

Second, the medical model doesn’t have all the answers. In today’s health system, almost all health funding goes toward treatment of illness instead of prevention. This is an inefficient way to deal with cardiovascular disease, and an inefficient way to deal with proliferation of the undead. There’s no cure for zombie-ism, just as there is no absolute cure for diabetes or HIV (there are, however, life-saving treatments for both of these diseases). Prevention is key and must receive greater priority when looking at the health policy issues today.

Third, public health is an interdisciplinary field. Broad epidemic preparedness requires work from all academic disciplines from epidemiology to sociology, from medicine to economics. The economic efficiency of vaccine delivery, the morality of community quarantines, the anthropology of disease and the construction of wooden barricades are all important issues that come up during a health crisis such as a zombie attack. Disease — whether caused by a stomach bug, biological attack or brain-devouring syndrome — rarely has a magic-bullet cure. Instead, a coalition of experts must provide new perspectives to new problems. Going into the consulting industry after graduation? Public health experts can still use your help!

Fourth, disease is a global issue and affects everyone. Pathogens ignore national borders. They are able to cross the world in hours or days; no country is invulnerable to the importation of disease. Additionally, pathogens can adapt to changing ecological environments, creating strains resistant to basic treatments (the infected in “I Am Legend,” for example, began as allergic to sunlight, but by the end of the movie could venture into the dusk-time shadows). Around the world, the improper delivery of medications for tuberculosis and HIV has already created such resistance. All demographics — whether poor or rich, local or distant — must have access to effective health care treatment and prevention programs to prevent the global spread of these resistant “superbugs.”

Other important life lessons abound in zombie films: Always keep your doors locked; it’s a good idea to have some canned food around; in general, avoid malls; don’t bro out too long with your buddy who just got that zombie bite.

Is Yale prepared for a zombie attack? Probably not. But public health experts constantly fight to prevent such epidemics and, when they occur, work diligently to recognize, isolate and cure any infectious disease.

So how can you become one of these champions of global health? How can you better understand the epidemiological principles that serve as a foundation of a healthy population? How can you learn to protect yourself from outbreak, starvation, or your infected residential college master charging you while you’re cornered against a fence?

Go watch a zombie movie.

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One Response to What Zombie Movies Can Teach Us About Public Health

  1. Great post. Watching a zombie movie is always good advice. I recently read World War Z, which I thought was great, especially the way the plot evolved from an outbreak and the way governments handled it. Worth the read (if you haven’t already).

    Monk

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