The zombie apocalypse seems like something that only exists in films, but scientifically it may be more possible than previously thought. The defining characteristics of a zombie include a relentlessly aggressive behavior, a biologically infected disease and a motivation to infect others. According to these standards, zombies already exist.
The rabies virus is a preventable viral disease that’s prevalent among wild animals such as bats and raccoons, but is easily transmittable to domestic animals and humans. It affects the central nervous system and if left untreated will ultimately cause death.
Since it affects the central nervous system, the disease causes many of its victims to go violently insane. It’s one of the few remaining diseases known of that is 100 percent fatal if allowed to progress far enough to reach the brain.
Technology and vaccinations have reduced the number of cases dramatically. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the early 1900s, human deaths caused by rabies in the United States averaged approximately 100 a year. That number has dwindled to an average of two to three a year mainly due to animal control and vaccination programs that began in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, on average an estimated 55,000 people are killed annually by rabies worldwide due to lack of resources used to combat the disease in less developed areas.
The rabies virus won’t cause a zombie outbreak without extreme mutation. There are two forms of rabies one can be affected with. One causes “dumb” symptoms – speech becomes slurred, motor functions are lost and eventually the infected person slips into a coma before dying.
The second form of rabies causes the victim to become extremely agitated and aggressive. This “furious” strain is the one that most zombie movies are based off of and account for about half of all cases in animals and two thirds of all cases in humans. Many rabies cases involve a series of varying stages that range from mania, violence and to delirium.
The virus’ ability to spread through saliva slows down its transmission. But, if it were able to mutate in a way that allowed it to spread quickly and more efficiently, such as through the air, the possibility of a massive outbreak would be much greater. The fact that it can only be contracted through a bite from an infected person or animal is a limiting factor in its level of contagiousness.
The incubation period for rabies is inconsistent with how Hollywood zombies are portrayed. Rabies doesn’t set in immediately. It actually takes anywhere from ten days to a year in some cases to show symptoms.
It’s entirely plausible, however, that as the rabies virus replicates and mutates like all viruses do, it could mutate in a fashion that would drastically reduce its incubation period.
It’s a highly unlikely scenario but technically possible. Combine a short incubation time with the ability to spread rapidly through the air and you have a real, live Hollywood zombie.
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