Sex, Lives and Red Tape

Can Zombies Teach Us About Public Health?

Ah zombies… it seems that they are (metaphorically) everywhere.

In recent years I have observed the nature of zombie outbreaks in films change. There has been a move away from slow, meandering, gormless zombies (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead) and an increase in the idea that zombie-ness is caused by infection and has epidemic* potential (e.g. 28 days later, Zombieland, World War Z).

Although one can dispute the ‘nature’ of zombies, I believe the key issue is that all zombies represent an unforeseen threat – and it is that which enables them to be good subjects from which to teach public health.

The question of what is a zombie is simple enough, and the simple answer is:  a human that has died for a period of time and re-animated with a reconfigured central nervous system and without a beating heart. (Zombie Biology)

Here are some great examples where public health concepts have been taught through zombies.

  • “DEADinburgh”

What is it? Simulation event whereby 250 uninfected participants have to work out what to do as an unidentified pathogen has infected the city turning everyone into zombies. Participants work alongside real scientists to decide whether to destroy the city, kill the infected, or search for a cure.

What can we learn about public health? This event helps convey important lessons regarding health protection (such as the identification, spread and control of infectious diseases; emergency response and preparedness; risk perception and communication), and also emphasises the interplay of science and art in making public health decisions.

More information: a series of DEADinburgh performances took place earlier in 2013, and I haven’t heard any gossip of repeat performances being planned. However it may be worth keeping an eye on their website; in the meantime below is their trailer…


  • “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead”

What is it? UC Irvine have opened an 8-week free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) which covers a number of science and survival topics. It runs alongside the new series 3 of The Walking Dead (an American horror drama show about surviving a zombie apocalypse). The course consists of video lectures, discussion forums, quizzes, reading material, and interviews with both experts and cast from the show.

What can we learn about public health? Week 2 is all about ‘public health and infectious diseases’ – however, I would argue that the whole course is relevant to public health (from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, nutrition in a post-apocalyptic world, modelling outbreaks of infectious diseases through to social structures and identity).

More information: to enroll and access the course material visit their website. You can also access most of the course lectures on the youtube page here. For a taster – below is the introduction video for the course…


  • Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse

What is it? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in America have a range of zombie products from blogs, zombie-themed preparedness activities for school-aged children, a graphic novel, posters and a range of social media resources. The CDC admit that although at first the initiative was quite ‘tongue in cheek’, it has engaged new audiences with preparedness messages and has proven to be a very effective platform for learning.

What can we learn about public health? The key focus of the CDC zombie products are around emergency preparedness, as emphasised by their slogan “if you’re ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you’re ready for any emergency”. The director, Dr Ali Khan, notes

If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack.

More information: all resources are freely available on the CDC website


So, can zombies teach us about public health?

Zombie are popular in modern culture, and the examples above illustrate a variety of ways that important public health concepts can be taught using zombie ideology. Whether it be principles of emergency preparedness, the management of infectious disease or understanding human behaviour; zombies are a useful public health teaching tool.

Over to you.

  • Do you think teaching public health concepts through zombies is effective?
  • Do you have any further examples of zombie-public-health in action?
  • Are there other pop culture phenomena which could be adapted to help the public understand more about public health?

*I should note that the presence of any single zombie in real life would, by definition, be an epidemic.


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This entry was posted on October 27, 2013 by in Health Protection and tagged , , , , , .