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Zombie myth has scientific roots

Zombies of pop culture carry a disease based partly on trypanosomiasis, a “sleep sickness” from a parasite found inside tsetse flies.
BY GREG ELWELL Published: October 29, 2013

If there's one thing scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation share with zombies, it's an appreciation for brains. Granted, zombies want to eat those brains, while OMRF researchers just like using them.

With Halloween fast approaching, it seems like zombies are everywhere. Whether you caught the bug from “The Walking Dead” or “World War Z,” it's hard to steer clear of these shambling, flesh-hungry monsters. And believe it or not, part of the zombie myth is rooted in biomedical science.

“There are quasi-scientific roots to almost all of your classic monsters,” said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “And zombies are no exception.”

In movies, TV and popular fiction, zombies were once people who were transformed by a horribly mutated — and contagious — virus or parasite. “Considering recent scares over both avian and swine flu,” Prescott said, “that might not seem so far-fetched.”

In fact, Prescott said, a disease called African trypanosomiasis, or “sleeping sickness,” shares some traits of a zombie infection. A parasite called Trypanosoma brucei is delivered in the bite of a tsetse fly. After initially causing headache, fever, joint pain and itching, the parasite invades the brain, where it disrupts the sleep cycle and triggers confusion, tremors and paralysis.

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