Strange diseases are a staple of the modern zombie genre, at least since it moved away from radiation and voodoo towards something more infectious in style. Our latest comic brings up Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as “Mad Cow Disease”.

You’ve probably heard of it at least in passing. If not, a quick trip to wikipedia will let you know it was, and is, a quite real affliction. One that was definitely spread by the practice of grinding slaughterhouse leftovers and sick and injured animals into the meal used to feed other livestock. Thus, cows eating cows.

If that wasn’t bizarre enough, Mad Cow isn’t spread by a virus, but by mutated proteins called prions. In a mammal’s brain, they get bent out of shape, and then they start mutating all the proteins near them in the same way, eventually producing holes where tissue should be. Needless to say this has a bad effect on functions the brain controls, and eventually shuts down the whole system. It was never as big an epidemic in North America as it was in Europe, but in the United Kingdom entire cattle populations had to be exterminated to get things under control.

What’s that you say? People are mammals? Why yes, they are, and there are still people being diagnosed with the human equivalent of mad cow due to tainted beef they might have consumed years or even decades earlier. Prions can have a very long incubation period, you see.

Sleep well, children.

Anyhow, a particularly nasty strain of Mad Cow Disease is the whole premise behind the zombie flick Dead Meat. For one thing, the cows are out to get their own (human) happy meals, which I suppose is the extreme interpretation of the results of giving them a non-herbivorous diet. Something akin to Mad Cow might also be at the root of Zombieland, although we don’t get much detail beyond a mention of “Patient Zero” having eaten a bad hamburger.

Another disease often used as a zombie catalyst is variations on rabies. Off the top of my head, some super-rabies derivative was the culprit behind the outbreaks of the Left 4 Dead game and the movie Quarantine. Part of the attraction of rabies, again, is the easy transmission between mammals, plus hyper-aggression and being incurable once symptoms have set in. A disease that’s incurable is very important to an apocalypse scenario. Most everyone has probably experienced the frustration of going to the doctor about the cold making them miserable, only be to informed it’s viral and there’s nothing to be done for it except bedrest and fluids. Not only did you not choose to be infected in the first place, you’re at the mercy of the bug until it decides to leave you alone.

So of course, it’s an easy jump from that to the Superflu that doesn’t leave you alone. At least, not until you’re dead. And from there, you get the disease that won’t even leave you alone after you’re dead, and instead makes you get up and shamble after the still healthy and their juicy flesh. In a way, though, zombies could be seen as an invention that allows people to express some control over the idea of a killer plague. You can at least see zombies coming. You can’t chainsaw a virus, but you can sure as heck chainsaw a zed. It might still be a hopeless situation in the end, but not quite as random… and hey, at least you’re being proactive.

Let’s hope no zombie apocalypse ever goes the route of an old video game I owned, though, called Incubation. It was a science-fiction horror scenario where formerly peaceful aliens start mutating into ferocious killers after coming into contact with a human virus. You find out in the course of the game that the virus causing the mutations is Herpes Simplex. Now, I’m guessing this choice was made based on the fact that Herpes Simplex is incurable and remains in the body for life once infection occurs; however, the shuddersome question I have to this day is, “How did the aliens get herpes?”

Again, sleep well, children.

It could be worse. After all, you could have a significant other who once fed a hamburger to a cow.