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If a zombie outbreak were to occur, Alaska is one of the best places to be in terms of survivability.

Thus was the comical concession of Michael Bruce last Fri., April 13, as he addressed a packed house at the Beartooth Theatre Pub & Grill regarding the topic, “Can the zombie apocalypse happen in the Arctic?” The event was sponsored by the Alaska World Affairs Council.

As the epidemiology team leader of the Arctic Investigations Program in Anchorage, affiliated with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Bruce ought to be the expert on the topic. He is highly trained in internal and preventative medicine. The past 18 years of his career have been focused on improving the health of Alaskans and people in other Arctic nations as part of a disease surveillance unit.

“So, I have some good news for you,” Bruce began as he referenced the top four from a David Letterman-like top ten list from c|net, an online news site.

Drum roll, please...

  1. Alaska has the fewest number of people per square mile. Ah, that means fewer zombies to chase those of us not infected.

  2. Nearly 62 percent of Alaskans own a gun. Of course, guns aren’t the only way to eliminate a zombie, as per what is depicted in television shows such as AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” But factor in the fact that Alaska also has one of the highest percentages of gun owners taking firearms training and odds are better than average that an Alaskan carrying a firearm in to battle against a zombie is likely to put the bullet right through the zombie’s brain.

  3. Once dead, the chances of zombie reanimation are lower in Alaska – if you can get the dead body to a crematorium quickly enough. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, Alaska has the 13th highest rate of cremation in the United States. This means potentially fewer dead bodies remaining intact to transform in to zombies.

  4. Alaska ranks no. 7 in the nation in terms of physical activity. We can run away from the zombies better than most of our fellow non-zombie Americans.

Bruce’s introduction was just a bit of titillating tease to warm the audience up to the not so sexy but significantly more scientifically likely notion that diseases carrying potential zombie-apocalypse implications are indeed lurking frozen beneath Alaska’s permafrost.

This notion matters because climate change and global warming could potentially unleash unpredictable and nasty stuff today’s humans have no working knowledge about.  

“When it comes to pre-history, we really do not know what happened,” Bruce said. “Did we have massive die-offs from infectious diseases we in modern history have never seen? It is a good question for us to ask ourselves. Is there something out there we have not experienced and it is of the nightmarish magnitude of a zombie apocalypse? We just don’t know for sure.”

But scientists do have a few clues.

And those clues are getting national and international attention via media coverage by the NPR, the Siberian Times and TIME magazine.

Bruce points to a 2016 case in western Siberia in which one boy died and more than hundred others were infected with anthrax released from buried reindeer (caribou) carcasses when an unusually warm summer with temperatures in the 90s melted much deeper layers of the permafrost.

The anthrax-infected reindeer had been buried for 75 years and the disease lay dormant in the grave with the deceased frozen animal all that time.

When it was unleashed in the summer of 2016, it had infected more than 2,000 reindeer by August and was threatening the nomadic lifestyle of the Nenets Peoples who, despite using satellite phones and GPS systems, still follow the reindeer as they graze the tundra.

Russian officials were preparing to slaughter nearly a quarter million reindeer to stop anthrax from spreading.

This anthrax case is just one of the many reasons why Bruce and his colleagues are part of the International Circumpolar Surveillance, An Arctic Network for the Surveillance of Infectious Diseases including Alaska, Northern Canada, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

This group actively monitors disease outbreaks of all kinds in arctic regions – especially as changing temperatures change the ecological dynamics of this once always frozen region.

“To a great extent, the Arctic has been isolated from the rest of the planet in that the cold has been a protective barrier for us,” Bruce said. “But now that protective barrier is disappearing and it no longer protects us not only from tropical disease coming in, but also from what has been laying here under the surface. Our force field is waning.”

Bruce’s discussion also covered major influenza outbreaks of the past including the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic which spread across the entire globe killing between 50 and 100 million people with more than 500 million infected.

Scientists have used today’s modern “AIR Pandemic Flu Model” to simulate what a similar influenza event would do the general population.

“It definitely has some zombie-like similarities,” Bruce said, in regards to what a Spanish Flu placed in today’s modern world would look like.

He monitored the 2009 H1N1 Bird Flu watching for its impact to strike Alaska as migratory birds made their annual flights from Asia to North America.

Fortunately, that event sidestepped Alaska.

He monitors cases of botulism – very common in Interior Alaska where foods are regularly fermented – and of tuberculosis – not so common these days but still lingering, especially in remote areas – to keep tabs on what is happening within the population.

It is part of accumulating baseline data on a variety of diseases and infections to help future scientists access more detailed information to guide future prevention and treatment.

But alas, much to the chagrin the hundreds of high school students in attendance for a social studies field trip, Bruce did deliver the pop culturally heart-breaking news that the re-animation of dead bodies into walking but speechless moaning upright corpses interested only in eating brains simply is just highly scientifically unlikely.

Sorry, kids.

Reach Amy Armstrong via email at: asocialbutterfly@gci.net.

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