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Back in 2012, newspapers reported that a mystery disease was turning growing numbers of East African children into "zombies". They were talking about a disease known as Nodding Syndrome, a phenomenon that first appeared in Tanzania in the 1960s and later reared its head in Sudan and Uganda.
According to the World Health Organization, Nodding Syndrome typically "affects children between the ages of 5 and 15 years old, causing progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, stunted growth and a characteristic nodding of the head". Children affected by this bizarre disease appear to fall asleep, closing their eyes and nodding their heads even when they are actually awake. The victims are confused and have the compulsion to wander around aimlessly — like zombies. The scariest thing about Nodding Syndrome is that its cause hasn't been discovered yet.
Nodding Syndrome is certainly interesting as well as scary, but is it also a sign that a real-life zombie outbreak could sweep across the globe one day?
What Exactly Are Zombies?
We all know zombies from the movies. Less well-known is the fact that the word "zombie" comes from Haiti. The creole "zonbi" turned into the Haitian French "zombi". A British poet writing about the history of Brazil first introduced the word to the English language in 1819.
In Haitian folklore, zombies are animated corpses made to move by magic, witchcraft, or voodoo. These corpses were said to be under the control of the magician, and to have no soul or free will.
The zombies we know from the movies are a little different. They're dead, yes, but they're not under control of a witch doctor. They don't appear to engage in any meaningful conversation, but they do have an insatiable craving for human flesh. These "living dead" don't just decompose and stop moving after a while; they seem to have the capacity to go on forever.
Kids with Nodding Syndrome may look like zombies from movies, then, but they don't qualify for that title because they're neither dead nor cannibalistic. The eerie similarities are undeniable though, especially if you look at more recent media portrayals of the zombie phenomenon, like the TV series The Walking Dead. Modern zombie films don't just want to creep you out. They're looking for that extra fear factor and want to make zombies look a little more scientific. Saying a virus has turned dead people into zombies is one way in which this can be achieved.
Could that actually happen, for really real? It's an nice fantasy to explore. Let's be honest and say that it's not possible for actual dead people to move about eating folks, controlled by a virus, fungus, or parasite. Still, individual "zombie symptoms" can indeed occur in humans and animals. Since they are science-fact rather than fiction, this is no less frightening than real zombies. Parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi could all lead to devastating and incredibly frightening consequences.