The Zombie Apocalypse!

Don’t panic, the zombies aren’t here yet, just a great way to get year 7 students interested in infection biology!

University College School in Hampstead ran a themed science week for year 7 (11-12 year olds) entitled, ‘Zombie Apocalypse’.¬†Professor John Kelly and I spoke to the students on the 11th and 12th November about infection biology, focussing on a couple of suitably ‘apocalyptic’ examples. Just before my presentation they’d been doing an art class, and turned up sporting suitably gory zombie ‘bites’, and seemed keen to learn how to avoid the real thing…

Norovirus provided a great way to explain about the spread of an infection; talk of projectile vomiting and diarrhoea inevitably raised a few laughs (mostly based on the students’ personal unpleasant experiences during the annual outbreaks of ‘winter vomiting bug’ that tend to ‘run’ through our schools!). Once the laughter had subsided, talk of how norovirus spreads provided a great way to explain R0, or the ‘basic reproductive number’ (the number of infections generated by one case during the infectious period in an otherwise uninfected population). This highlighted the importance of good hygiene, especially when trying to break the transmission cycle during an outbreak, but also more generally as a means to protect ourselves from infectious agents during our daily lives.

Fortunately, norovirus is generally self limiting and most of us recover quickly from a bout of sickness. However, for many infections this is not the case, and we rely on drugs and immunisation to protect us. Talk of Jenners’ pioneering work with cowpox and the ultimate development of the modern immunisation programmes that we’ve all benefited from also generated a lot of interest. Although eyebrows were raised at Jenners dubious ethics when it came to testing his theory – inoculating small pox into vaccinated individuals; fortunately, he was successful! The ultimate result is that the current generation of children in the UK (and the rest of the developed world) are among the healthiest there have ever been.

The talk finished with a few slides on Malaria, probably the most widespread and certainly at a population level the most devastating parasite. This highlighted some of the other ways in which an infection can be spread, the complexity of controlling a parasitic disease, and our continued vulnerability to pathogens in many parts of the world.

Doing this talk was a great experience. I was knocked out by the enthusiasm of the students and their willingness to ask questions, completely unencumbered by preconceptions or fear of appearing stupid (if they didn’t know, they asked – something that should always be encouraged!).

Would I do this again? Definitely. If you get approached to talk about your work in a school, jump at the chance – you might just pique someone’s interest in a future in scientific research, or at the very least show a class the potential of science to offer insights¬† into the world around us.

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