The dubious threat of a "zombie apocalypse" has been used for educational purposes before- back in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scored a major publicity coup when their "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" blog post, meant to encourage disaster preparedness among the public, became so popular that it temporarily crashed the CDC website.

Now, a paper in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the CDC ahead of print, further pushes the zombie metaphor in the service of public health and infectious disease awareness.

In particular, public health researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are interested in milking the American public's familiarity with the walking dead to explain infectious diseases like rabies and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease, which share certain symptoms with zombification.

Rabies is highly preventable and no longer much of a threat in the United States, but still accounts for over 55,000 deaths per year in developing nations. The UC Irvine team fleshes out key similarities between contagions of the real and fictional diseases- for one, both rabies and zombie pandemics are spread primarily through biting.

Here's a sampler:

"When affected by rabies, human movement is irregular; muscle spasms and convulsions accompany numbness and loss of muscle function. Although their physical ability varies in media, the zombies we are familiar with generally have a distinctive, hobbling gait. Rabies causes difficulty swallowing because drinking causes spasms of the voice box; zombies largely lack the ability to produce any sound other than a deep groan, although they have been capable of speaking the word "brains" in classic zombie cinema."

Less facetiously, the writers detail evidence for the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak on the scale of a zombie pandemic like in "The Walking Dead" or "28 Days Later." They also explain real-life ethical quandaries that zombie fiction encourages viewers think about, like the morality of requiring mandatory vaccinations, culling animal disease vectors, or quarantining potentially uninfected humans during a contagion.

Zombie apocalypse can also serve as proxies for psychological fears about neurodegeneration. In almost every zombie film, heroes (or antiheroes) face inevitable moments when they lose their closest friends or loved ones to zombification. Similarly, people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's undergo debilitating changes that can be horrifying and disorienting to those around them.

Its public health lessons aside, the paper is a fun refresher on zombie folklore and the history of zombies in the media. You can read the whole thing at the CDC's website: Zombies- A Pop Culture Resource for Public Health Awareness.