May 19, 2011 -- If zombies ever start taking over the planet, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says we'd better be prepared for it.
If the undead really start roaming the earth looking for fresh brains to eat, we can't rely on our ability to shoot 'em dead the way people do in video games or in horror flicks. Instead, the agency says, we need to treat it like any other disaster.
"So what do you need to do before zombies…or hurricanes or pandemics for example, actually happen? First of all, you should have an emergency kit in your house," Dr. Ali S. Khan, assistant surgeon general of the United States, wrote in a blog on CDC's web site. "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 refugee camp."
While the zombie stuff may be tongue-in-cheek, the overall message is serious: It's critical to be ready for real disasters -- from storms to diseases to terrorist attacks. The problem, experts say, is that no matter how many earthquakes, floods or other disasters happen, people still don't make an effort to prepare for them.
"Numerous studies have shown that uptake of preparedness messages has been minimal," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "We haven't gotten much above 10 of 15 percent of the public being aware of the need for preparedness." Redlener said other pressures, such as the economy, unemployment and day-to-day challenges make it difficult for people to focus on preparedness.
Khan said he hopes the blog can change that.
"We hope that it's translating into more people understanding what the role of public health is and that they have a personal responsibility for preparing for disasters." Using the zombie apocalypse scenario, he said, was an effort to get people engaged to get ready for hurricane season, which starts June 1.
The readiness message is especially important, experts say, in light of federal budget cuts that slashed more than $100 million from public health preparedness programs when they say much more money is needed.
"It means that fewer people can respond and fewer people can help prepare for response, which requires planning and training so that the response is meaningful and automatic," said Robert Pestronk, executive director of National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), an organization that represents more than 2,800 local health departments. "Without sustained preparedness funding, continued progress is unreliable and the risk of being caught off guard increases."
Vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly and the chronically ill could suffer worse than others without the means to help them.
"Tremendous resources have to go to attempt to help these populations cope with the challenges of a disaster," said Redlener.
With local health departments being squeezed financially, anything that will help people take a more proactive approach to disaster readiness can help.
"The 'Zombie Apocalypse' scenario is a great way of getting information out so people can understand the need for preparedness," said Pestronk.
Zombies and 'Lord of the Rings': Public Health Messengers?
The Hungarian government is using other fictional characters to make sure its emergency warning messages get through to young people.
According to the Associated Press, the government sent out messages on state radio and television warning people about severe weather in several places in "Middle-earth." The government used the fictional locations featured in "Lord of the Rings" so people wouldn't be alarmed if real places were mentioned and also to determine how well the messages reach young people.
But another U.S. agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is getting the word out about hurricane season using a more straightforward approach.
"Far too many people will not be prepared and will try to get ready in the last minutes when the hurricane is threatening their community, and won't have enough time," said FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. "Of all the hazards we deal with, hurricanes are the one that should be the least surprising, or the ones that we should be best prepared for."
CDC recommends taking a few simple steps to get ready for whenever disaster strikes. An emergency kit consisting of items like water, food, medications, a utility knife, battery-powered radio and important documents. People should also learn evacuation routes and identify emergency contacts.
By taking these precautions, Khan said people can be prepared for any catastrophe, even the dreaded zombie apocalypse.