A virulent rabies-influenza viral hybrid could lead to masses of infected victims turning into veritable zombies. The hapless former humans would exhibit all the classic features of the horror movies: the would become lumbering, mindless monsters with murderous tendencies and the ability to transform others into shuffling zombies with merely a bite.
Though the dead will not return to life, it's the next closest thing.
This gruesome possibility is discussed (quite calmly) by Samita Andreansky, a virologist at Florida's University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. Andreansky is one of the guests interviewed on the National Geographic special documentary The Truth About Zombies that aired during October 2010.
Andreansky explains that combining the rabies virus with a mutated flu virus could create the basis for a worldwide zombie pandemic.
Zombies are possible
Zombies lumbering up and down city streets are only found in lurid Hollywood horror flicks, right? Well, so far that's been true. But viruses mutate incessantly and many things cause them to mutate. Exposure to various chemicals, heat, cold, wetness, dryness, air pressure, the ready availability of hosts and even the intensity of ultraviolet rays can and probably will cause mutation. The process of natural selection also will cause viruses to mutate based on availability of nutrients, response to the body's immune system and mistakes in replication.
The genetic code is easily mutable and adaptable. Virus's incubation periods have been known to change dramatically. And, as Andreansky is quick to point out, if a rabies-flu hybrid ever occurs then zombiehood could be a reality.
The rabies infection
For centuries its been known that rabies are contracted in humans from the bite of a rabies infected animal. Incidents of the disease have dropped dramatically in the western world thanks to domesticated animals being vaccinated against the sickness. Despite the fall off in incidents of rabies, some are infected each year by encounters with rabid bats, skunks and squirrels, among other wild creatures.
Rabies is treatable and as long as treatment is given in a timely manner, the bite from a rabies infected animal is rarely fatal. Untreated, death is a certainty within a week.
The rabies virus will incubate inside the body for weeks or months. Sometimes it takes a full year before symptoms surface. Anxiety, mental confusion, mild madness followed by vivid hallucinations and paralysis consume the victim until a wretched death follows.
The victim will literally foam at the mouth and twist into pretzel shapes sometimes dislocating joints and cracking ribs.
Mutation to airborne zombie-virus
To create a fast-spreading zombie pandemic similar to the ones depicted in popular zombie movies, the rabies virus would have to mutate into an airborne contagion. That could be accomplished by rabies viruses "trading" some of their genetic material with influenza viruses.
The newly embedded genetic code would then allow them to propagate much faster and infect people through skin contact or through the air like cold and flu viruses are transmitted. This process is called recombination. Virologists are very familiar with it as it happens constantly and is the reason why new strains of flu come from the Far East and other parts of the world every year.