Zombie Venom

Okay, not much econ content in this post, but science writer Kyle Hill has put a finger on something that’s always bothered me about the logic of The Walking Dead.  In the Walking Dead universe, it turns out that everyone has the zombie virus latent in their system.  As a result, death by any cause (for instance, a bullet wound or just old age) can result in reanimation as a zombie.  But in that case, why does a zombie bite kill you?  If you already have the virus inside you, then getting exposed to more of it shouldn’t be a problem.  A zombie bite should be no worse than any other bite.

Hill offers an explanation, one that is not stated explicitly in the show but that is consistent with it:  that victims of zombie bites don’t die from the zombie virus, but from other pathogens that thrive inside the mouths of the dead.  In his words:

Dead bodies are dirty. Shortly after our body stops fighting off bacteria and starts decomposing, we are colonized by microscopic critters not safe for the living. For example, the state of a corpse is dangerous enough that crews searching for victims of natural disasters take special precautions to make sure they don’t get infected. A rotting body can still transfer gastrointestinal pathogens, tuberculosis, and hepatitis [PDF] to the living. Tuberculosis itself can survive in a corpse for 36 days after host death. So, one can imagine that a biting mouth of a rotting corpse, continuously chomping down on humans, isn’t the most hygienic place. It harbors a cocktail of bacteria and viruses that could be considered a sort of “zombie venom.”

Another possibility is that zombies produce a genuine venom of some sort — a toxin carried by the saliva.  But regardless, a bite victim doesn’t actually die from the zombie virus; he dies from something else, and then becomes a zombie for the same reason everyone else does: the zombie virus already in his system.

However, this explanation implies that there may actually be hope for the victim of a zombie bite.  They’re not doomed to become a zombie any more than the gunshot victim is.  If the actual death is caused by bacteria carried in the biter’s mouth, then antibiotics could do the trick.  If the actual death is caused by a genuine toxin, then an antitoxin of some sort might work.  Either way, this opens up a world of possibilities for saving people and resisting the zombie threat.  Producers of medical treatments for the zombie venom should see substantial demand for their services (okay, that was my weak attempt at making an econ connection).


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