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Important message from the CDC


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Here's how a mathematician would prepare for this!


how to (optimally) prepare for a zombie outbreak

from Punk Rock Operations Research by Laura McLay

Are you prepared for a zombie apocolypse? The CDC is apparently very concerned about this: they recently issued some advice for a zombie outbreak. Some of their advice includes identifying optimal evacuation routes and quarantine plans. It sounds like operations research could play a critical role in surviving a zombie apocalypse and propagating the human species. I’m game. Are you?

Unlike the vampire threat, I take zombie threats very, very seriously. Zombie outbreaks in movies and films consistently exhibit exponential growth, which one would expect if they modeled a zombie outbreak using mathematical tools such as birth-death models or differential equations. This consistency with mathematical modeling obviously means that zombie apocalypse is a real threat, doesn’t it?

A similarly concerned student gave me a book chapter (see the reference below) that appeared in an academic book about infectious diseases that is helpful for preparing for a zombie attack. They set up a series of differential equations to model a zombie outbreak and then determine optimal strategies for responding. Their model consists of three sub-populations:

Susceptible (S): humans,

Zombies (Z): this is self-explanatory, and

Removed ®: dead humans.

Humans can die (i.e., they are removed) through natural causes (with rate d). The removed humans can become zombies with rate z, and suscpetibles can become zombies through a zombie encounter with rate b. Zombies die with rate a. Since zombies only crave human flesh, other species do not need to be considered. The birth rate is a constant P. Therefore, the differential equations modeling these interactions are

S’ = P – bSZ – dS

Z’ = bSZ + zR – aSZ

R’ = dS + aSZ – zR

The key difference between this model and other infectious disease models is that the dead can be resurrected. The authors identify the conditions under which the human species is wiped out(!) However, they show that quick, aggressive attacks can stave off a zombie apocalypse.

* P. Munz, I. Hudea, J. Imad, and R.J. Smith, 2009. “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.” In Infectious disease modelling research progress, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., p. 133 – 150.

Strangely enough, this book chapter was supported by several grants, including a NSERV Discovery grant, an Ontario Early Researcher Award, and funding from MITACS. With its low population density, you’d think Canada would be less susceptible to a zombie attack.

How have you prepared for a zombie attack?

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This makes me wonder if perhaps there is a scenario that the government already knows could happen (or will happen) like maybe some weird virus outbreak or even a massive food shortage that would cause cannibalism to become rampant. Not necessarily real zombies returned from the dead but something that would cause "zombie-like" behavior in the masses.

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Dave Daigle, a CDC spokesman and self-described member of the Zombie Task Force, said the idea for the post arose during a brainstorming session on how to interest Americans in the agency's annual campaign on hurricane preparedness.

"I worry we try the same thing every year and I didn't know how many people we were actually engaging," Daigle said. "Let's face it -- preparedness and public health are not sexy topics."

A coworker mentioned that following the earthquake in Japan, the CDC saw a big traffic spike on its Twitter account after someone tweeted the agency asking if radiation emissions could set off a zombie attack, Daigle said. That got him thinking.

"That phrase popped into my head: zombie preparedness," he said. He took the idea to the CDC's director of preparedness, Dr. Ali S. Khan, who gave a thumbs up to the project.

Daigle said a normal blog post gets maybe 1,000 hits in a week. By Wednesday, two days after the post went up, the zombie primer had racked up 30,000 hits. Then the server crashed.

Now with extra server space, the CDC is hoping that their tongue-in-cheek advice will inspire people to make even basic preparations for a real emergency. "This includes things like water, food, and other supplies to get you through the first couple of days before you can locate a zombie-free camp (or in the event of a natural disaster, it will buy you some time until you are able to make your way to an evacuation shelter or utility lines are restored)," the post said.

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