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The Nyeri Cannibal: What is the science behind this Zombie Apocalypse?

By - Peter Nguli | December 2nd 2012

By Peter Nguli
If you thought that Kenya is only famous for her long distance runners and breath-taking safaris rich in wildlife, you better think again. Kenya is globally becoming famous in a new field; the field of cannibalism.

The world media was awash with astonishing horrible scenes of a Kenyan in Maryland, USA having ‘human’ dinner, The 21-year-old college student and Kenya native Alexander Kinyua from Maryland, USA told police that he ate the heart and brain of his housemate, and then hid some of the remains in the basement.

The Nyeri cannibal's case was even more horrendous: he started by eating the private parts of his dead wife like hamburgers, drunk her blood like orange juice and even forced his children to drink their mother's blood in surreal scenes reminiscent of horror movies from Hollywood.

 As of January 2012, there were nearly 1,000 news stories globally about cannibals featured on Google News. But the issue at hand with the Kenyan cases is not the ridicule or condemnation. It is rather for Kenyans to understand that cannibalism is a disease and the cannibal is not just a criminal but also a mental patient.

 Therefore, the urgent issue is rather finding out the root cause of this disease called cannibalism. Is it an alien zombie from the cosmos that has invaded our countrymen to cause an apocalypse, as seen in Hollywood science-fiction horror movies? Is it a contagious zombie virus, psychological problem or a drug-related apocalypse? Here are the possible causes but the scenario is not just a possibility but rather a probability;

 1. Rabies and rabies related viruses
By far the most possible cause is rabies. This can be attributed to the virus’s ability to transmit between multiple species, how it changes the behaviour of those infected and the fact that there is no definitive cure.  Humans often contract the disease via bites from infected animals such as dogs as the virus is found in high titres in saliva. 

Both rabies and rabies related viruses fall under the genus Lyssavirus and are very closely related, although the latter affects insectivores more than other mammals. Once infected the virus may replicate in muscle cells before invading the peripheral nervous system. It does so by binding to acetylcholine receptors, which is similar to the binding mechanism of many snake toxins. Once in the peripheral nervous system the virus moves towards the central nervous system where it disseminates into other cells.

Victims initially present with flu like symptoms followed by huge behavioural changes, in particular disorientation. This is followed by extreme aggression and intense hydrophobia with an inability to swallow. In terms of a zombie apocalypse, rabies is an excellent candidate for an infectious agent.

The incubation of the virus also differs widely between individuals with some people not experiencing symptoms until at least 2 years after initial infection.  The localisation of the virus in saliva coupled with the intense aggression experienced by the infected gives rise to the idea of humans running rampant in the streets biting one another.
2. Synthetic Drugs
Bath salts are highly addictive and apparently elicit intense cravings similar to methamphetamines. They act on the brain like other stimulants. Their most common side effects are agitation, fast heart rate, and hallucinations and delusions, seizures, high blood pressure, and paranoia, according to the US Centres for Disease Control.

The concern over synthetic drugs has come to a head in recent months, according to experts, as evidenced by events in Miami, USA last May when Rudy Eugene was fatally shot by police for gruesomely and repeatedly biting into another man’s face.

 Police believe that bath salts, a synthetic drug, is an underlying culprit in Eugene’s disturbing attack. Since then, the US government has banned the drug. Many of the patients suffering from cannibalism also had other drugs, like cocaine, benzodiazepines, opiates, synthetic marijuana (weed), or amphetamines, in their systems at the time.
 3. Toxoplasma gondii

Toxoplasma gondii, a small protozoan parasite, is no different and is frighteningly common, affecting one third of the world’s population. According to research by Glasgow Insight into Science and Technology, T. gondii, although primarily a cat parasite, has intermediate hosts such as humans, livestock and rodents.

 Laboratory tests have shown that mice infected at early post-natal timepoints display increased activity and become ‘bolder’ and aggresive, so the parasite takes over the rat's brain, and intentionally makes it scurry toward where the cats hang out. The rat is being programmed to get itself eaten, and it doesn't even know.

 The parasite has even been shown to alter the personality of humans but fortunately not in such a way as to create the flesh eating zombies in question.
 4. Prion diseases
These are not a parasites, virus or bacterium; prions are misfolded proteins. These proteins can be transmitted from one person to another through ingestion.

Once ingested, these plaques begin to form in the brain, much like Alzheimer’s disease and a similar irreversible neurodegeneration occurs. Clinically, the patients undergo behavioural changes, with symptoms including depression, hallucinations and increased aggression. Muscular abnormalities are also common. Some form of prion outbreak is plausible as history has already shown us, with a UK epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, human form) beginning in 1987 and killing nearly 200 people over the next 2 decades.

In simple terms, it is referred to as the 'Mad Cow' disease which has led to mass slaughter of bovines (cows) whenever there is an outbreak in UK in recent decades.

5. Psychological disorders

 The recent cases of horrifying cannibal attacks could be caused by an addiction to eating human flesh. Cannibalism causes euphoria after the person turns their fantasy into a reality according to Karen Hylen, a therapist at Summit Malibu Treatment Center in California, USA.

In the past, cannibalism has been linked to religion or people have resorted to it for sheer survival. However, a connection has now been made with addiction and mental illness.
People who have engaged in this act report feelings of euphoria or get a ''high'' by performing the action to completion. When cannibals finally act on their fantasies and hunt down a victim, the feeling they get from eating flesh releases dopamine in the brain and gives them a 'high' which they want to feel again.

Ms Hylen explained that the cannibal's mind then becomes conditioned to seek out more flesh to eat and they also thrive on the process of hunting down a victim. The cannibal is unable to stop, according to the therapist, until someone else intervenes.

The addiction is so strong it is similar to taking a drug like cocaine. However, unlike other addictions, the chances of the average person becoming addicted to cannibalism are exceptionally low. Because it is such a rare phenomenon, treating cannibals is difficult and there is no cure. 
So, what are the chances of all this happening again? Well, as expected, they are very slim but the science does exist to make it possible. Who knows, whatever the mechanism, one day this may all occur and the science fiction may become a lot less fictional. Until then, you can prepare yourself using this knowledge and hopefully the scientists at Kenya Medical Research Institute can prevent the unthinkable happening. If not, we may as well call our mighty KDF to fight the zombies — but if you’re too scared, you should make your zombie plan now before the zombies start chasing you through the streets of Nairobi and the interior countryside.

Peter Nguli, England, UK: Email; [email protected]



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