Epidemiology for Zombies

LSHTM logoA man is going into space and at first he is excited by the prospect. As time moves closer to the launch date there is stress and anticipation before the rocket launch. Then we have lift off and soon the rocket is in space. The man looks down on Earth and, seeing the glow of the Earth, realises that it was all worth it in the end.

The rocket moves slowly away from Earth and the Earth becomes smaller and smaller, and the view from the windows darker and darker, until there is only black and the loneliness of an empty space. Fear sets in over whether the right coordinates are being followed and will the rocket crash into the sun.

This is how many people feel after starting a distance learning course and before and after exams. It is how I felt soon after starting my current job and meeting my colleagues which lead me to study with the University of London.

In this blog I am going to show you how you can make learning more enjoyable with wordplay, teach you some epidemiology terminology learned on the Epidemiology course, as well as how to cash in on a  Zombie outbreak.

To clarify some points, I have chosen Zombies to avoid offending anyone with a genuine illness. If you think you have Zombie virus you may wish to consult a doctor.


1. Know what your case definition is: It is important to know how you will define a case of someone who is suffering from Human Zombism Virus (HZV). Many symptoms may appear, but they may not be enough alone to define someone as being a Zombie. For example, pale skin, dull eyes, low body temperature and using a mobile phone a lot may be early symptoms, but they are also common signs of being an undergraduate student. Having eyeballs that have exploded, an unusual walk and the fact that the person is dressed in a burial shroud may be better ways to define a case or better still a blood test.

2. Count the cases and map them out: Once you have a case definition it is a good idea to map out where the cases are coming from. A Case is an individual who displays the symptoms described with the case definition. You may see they are clustered together for example around mobile masts or a university campus.

3. Calculate the Quarantine times: It is worth figuring out how long the latency period is – this is the period of time between a person being exposed to the virus and the onset of symptoms. Also, how long before the disease becomes contagious  the period of time before the disease can be spread to others. It is also important to look at the mortality rate for the disease to see whether people are dying from the illness.

4. Beware of confounders: At first it may be believed that mobile phones are the cause of Human Zombism Virus (HZV) as during the early stages of infection Zombies are seen holding mobile phones and moving closer to mobile phone masts. But since Human Zombism Virus (HZV) is caused by a virus, this is simply a coincidence, as it turns out that those who become Zombies have hearing problems and move closer to the masts to get a better signal. Mobile phones are not on the Exposure— Outcome pathway and therefore not a causation factor. Therefore, it is a potential confounder. A confounder is also a form of Bias.

5. When you are studying Zombies, have the right type of technique for the situation. We have all read the articles in the newspaper about chocolate making us happier, red wine being good for the heart etc. Of course these studies often don’t ask whether we would be healthier being overweight, poor and with no teeth. When studying Zombies you have to make sure you use the right techniques and ask the right questions. It is unlikely if you take a defined group of people (cohort), and sit them down to answer questions on a questionnaire, you will get any correct answers. This is because of recall bias (the person is a Zombie), as well as the fact they have no eyeballs and can’t read the questionnaire.

6. Use a PR/marketing team to make some money: If getting shot or planting trees doesn’t appeal to you, but you would like a Nobel Prize, make sure you got a PR team in place for when you solve the Zombie Outbreak. We all got bills to pay and if you become a Zombie you might have a large phone bill to pay. So take a bad situation and cash in early. You don’t want to be a celebrity epidemic – someone who is famous in a small geographical location for a short period of time. You would rather be a global pandemic – someone who is famous across a range of countries globally for a longer period of time. The right team can help you achieve this.

So I hope this analogy helps shed some light on the basic process of handling a disease outbreak.

Good luck to all awaiting exam results!

Mustafa is studying the MSc Epidemiology by distance learning in London, UK.

One Response to Epidemiology for Zombies

  1. Very informative and funny 🙂 Thank you for sharing

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