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Zombies are running rampant.
The once-cult horror genre has broken into the mainstream, thanks to the help of the AMC cable network's "The Walking Dead," which has become the highest-viewed television show to date. The show also has inspired a comic book series and several video games.
Although the probability of a virus that causes rage and a hunger for flesh is slim, two Kent State University professors are taking advantage of the craze to teach students how public health and emergency systems could react to a zombie outbreak using the tools applied to pandemics.
The half-semester undergraduate special topic course, taught by KSU College of Public Health professors John Staley and Chris Woolverton, is aimed to prep students for such worst-case scenarios, but also applies to a variety of situations, Staley said.
"We're presenting the topic of zombies and how the public health system would respond," Staley said. "It starts to give real world applicability and understanding using popular culture."
During the class, students will learn basic preparedness, emergency response, the basics of epidemiology, how local police, health and fire agencies collaborate and how to figure out the best way to combat a highly infectious virus causing the population to attack and dine on one another.
"It catches your attention, but it gets people to the base issue that most people are not prepared," Staley said, adding that most people don't keep extra supplies of food and water, hand-crank or battery-operated radios and even first aid kits.
As part of the course, students will take the roles of local leaders to problem solve and react to a zombie outbreak situation.
"You can't sit around and go, 'Well, the state may come in.' That's going to take a while," Staley said. "Local resources tend to have to handle a situation, at least in the short term."
The professors are currently working to get local officials to visit the class and discuss how different agencies work together and handle pandemic viruses and other emergency response scenarios.
"We'll bring an expert panel in of people who are actually in the roles that the students get to play, and get them to debrief what's going on and how this would turn out," Staley said, adding that classroom guests may include a local police chief, elected official or health department expert.
Though a zombie outbreak seems pretty far off from reality, Staley said there's no telling how or when a virus mutates, spreads and affects a large population very rapidly.
"The 2009, 2010 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic was a real good example of how a pandemic turns global fairly quickly," he said. "I can see taking that pandemic flu virus and replacing it with a pandemic virus. (Public health officials) are always concerned about the next flu virus with a serious mutation where nobody has natural immunity and it spreads really quickly."
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