Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Zombie Bludgeoning & You

Fit’ like Zombiology students,

Doc A lecturing on prion disease
I had the pleasure of delivering my Zombie Science lecture as part of the Wrexham Science Festival in Wales. Afterwards I was asked a most intriguing question by one of my students, Ms Flora Cat:

“What would I need to use to effectively clean up potentially (prion disease) infected material? I can double glove, but I don’t think I have a strong enough cleaner.”

Regular students will know that we believe zombies will be caused by a prion disease, similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). But what you might not know is that these prion diseases, as well as being hard to treat, are even harder to clean up.  CJD is a good example for us to use here because it comes in many forms. You will most likely have heard of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), often called human mad cow disease, the kind believed to have been caused by people eating meat infected with mad cow disease. 

Another type is Iatrogenic CJD (iCJD). This is caused by healthcare-associated transmission, (i.e. patients for whom contaminated medical equipment was used or who received contaminated transplants.) Only two cases of this have ever been proven (but more cases are suspected). They involved electrodes that had been placed in a CJD patient’s brain. Once used for this they were properly sterilized and used again, only to transmit the CJD to new patients. After this was suspected to be happening the same electrodes were placed in a chimpanzee’s brain. The chimp also caught CJD and the link was proven.

It is important to note that only certain parts of the body seem to transmit CJD. Areas like the brain, spinal cord and eye have the highest infectious risk. Areas including saliva and bone marrow carry no infectious risk at all. Furthermore some people have contracted iCJD through blood transfusions from infected donors. Never accept donated blood from a zombie, not even if he offers you a biscuit.

I picked the wrong day to wear 3D glasses...
So if CJD and other prion diseases have a resistance to standard cleaning procedures what options are available to help those working in healthcare to fully disinfect their equipment?

Well, prions and prion diseases are notoriously mysterious and unusual in the science world. Methods to disinfect and sterilize them over the past few years have been controversial and cautious. What is clear is that many traditional methods are ineffective for sterilization. Methods like boiling, using dry heat or UV light for example.

But it isn’t doom and gloom because some methods, under certain circumstances, do work. A standard way to sterilize equipment is using a device called an autoclave. An autoclave is like a medical dishwasher that uses high pressure saturated steam to clean objects. Used on certain settings it can inactivate infectious prions to a safe level.
An autoclave - great for sterilizing things & getting the brown out of trousers
However the same process could be found to be ineffective due to differing prion concentrations, exposure time, temperature or a multitude of other factors.

But this applies mainly to those of us working medically with prion infected zombies. What about our Flora’s question? If you’ve just bludgeoned a zombie’s skull in and spread infectious brains all over the shop, what should you do?

Well here at the Zombie Institute we recommend a policy of avoidance in regard to those infected. Further to that we discourage violence, it should only be used as a last resort and only if you are in mortal danger. But let’s say theoretically that isn’t possible, zombies are surrounding you, threatening to bite your family, and the only solution is skull smashing. Here is the ZITS Guide to Safe Practice:

What are you moaning for? I'm the one who has to walk home alone.
  • Pick an out of the way, secure location to beat up your zombie. This should be somewhere that is only used for zombie slaying (e.g. not in your bedroom). That way you can ensure the infectious stuff stays there.
  • Gloves (doubling optional) should be worn for handling blood and body fluids. If you anticipate your zombie being a squirter add in some gowns, masks and protective eyewear. Don’t forget to keep this kit in your location and always leave it there. No popping it on for parties when you can’t be bothered creating a Halloween costume.
  • Select a suitable tool (e.g. giant mallet) for the bludgeoning procedure, use it only for prion zombie beatings, and keep it in your selected location. This avoids cross contamination. (I.e. forking a zombie to death then using the same fork to eat a pot noodle = very bad) Ideally you really only want to use a weapon once then have it destroyed. This might not be possible with available resources, but try and be creative. The computer game Dead Rising provides plenty of inspiration. (E.g. bat + nails = bat with nails, jewels + torch = lightsaber...ok they don’t all work...)
  • To decontaminate surfaces and instruments as well as safely dispose of waste please check out the unexcitedly named but very informative ‘Biosafety Practices for Handling Prions and Prion-Infected Tissues’ paper. (Link in the references)
Dead Rising 2 gives the Laws of Thermodynamics a badly scalded finger
So in conclusion, there are many ways in which you can attempt to clean up prion zombie infected mess. However much of the equipment, chemicals and practical skills are not likely to be in great supply or easily accessible if a zombie outbreak occurs, therefore the best solution is careful avoidance. If unfortunately you are forced to kill a zombie try and use a non-splattering style. Remember unlike fictional zombies real zombies do have to breathe so put down that pick axe and pick a pillow, you’ll quickly find yourself smothering your way to safety.

I ain't paying for a home Mum...ahem...I mean take that Zombie.
Thanks to Flora for her question and remember keep your Zombie Science queries coming our way because in the fight against zombies the greatest weapon is knowledge, and crossbows, but mainly knowledge.

Best wishes,
Doc A

Doctor Austin ZITS BSz MSz DPep is head of the Zombie Institute for Theoretical Studies and Zombiologist Royal to Her Majesty the Queen

See the Zombie Science 1Z Lecture –

Newcastle City Library:
Saturday 21st & Sunday 22nd August 2011
33 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle, England NE1 8AX
Lecture Times: Sat - 1400 & 1600 (2 & 4pm) Sun – 1200 & 1500 (12 & 3pm)
Tickets: Free – must be reserved in advance call 0191 277 4100
Suitable for ages 13+

Rutala W: Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization of Prion-Contaminated Medical Instruments, 2010 Feb, Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology (http://www.unc.edu/depts/spice/dis/ICHE-2010-Feb-p107.pdf)
Michigan State University: Recommended Biosafety Practices for Handling Prions and Prion-Infected Tissues, May 2007, Biosafety in Research (http://www.biosafety.msu.edu/current_topic/Prions/working_with_prions.pdf)
CJD Support Network: Iatrogenic CJD Information Sheet 3, Jan 2008