"Walking Dead" course teaches lessons about public health

Rick Grimes, played by actor Andrew Lincoln, from "The Walking Dead"
AMC

Millions of viewers tune into "The Walking Dead" each week to catch up on the latest travails of the the band of survivors living through the zombie apocalypse. Now, academics are teaching that the show about the undead may be able to impart valuable knowledge about public health crises for the living.

"When this invitation came to teach something through 'The Walking Dead,' it was very difficult at first for me to see how to do that from my perspective as a physician," Dr. Zuzana Bic, a public health faculty at University of California, Irvine, admitted to CBSNews.com.

"But I saw it's so real and had so much suffering and pain, and there was no public health team working together," she continued. "I saw the frustration, depression and no empathy... I realized that it's necessary to use this opportunity to teach and educate about public health."

Bic is one of four lecturers who are teaching an eight-week course called "Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC's 'The Walking Dead.'" The class, which started on Oct. 14, is offered for free via a partnership between UC Irvine and AMC.

Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) from "The Walking Dead"
Gene Page/AMC

"Fans of the show know that 'The Walking Dead' is about more than zombies; it's about survival, leadership and adapting to situations that are perilous and uncertain," Theresa Beyer, vice president of promotions and activation at AMC, said in a statement to CBSNews.com. "There is clearly a growing appetite for engagement with 'The Walking Dead,' and we hope this online course will drive a deep, sustained connection with the show during its upcoming fourth season and offer a legitimate educational experience that can be applied even more broadly."

Interested students can attend the lectures online via Instructure's Canvas Network. And, they'll have plenty of study buddies: During the first 24 hours, 20,000 students enrolled in the course.

Misty Frost, chief marketing officer at Instructure, told CBSNews.com that the organization approached the school and the network after analyzing its other massive open online courses, and realized that people were more engaged when the classes were about culturally relevant topics.

"In our brainstorming process, we discussed using AMC's 'The Walking Dead' as the premise for a serious academic experience on our (online course) platform," she said. "There is nothing more relevant and universally popular in popular culture right now, as evidenced by the series' 16 million viewers. Additionally, the storyline lends itself to a rich conversation in multiple academic disciplines."

Bic's portion of the course focuses on the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a public health crisis, how a post-apocalyptic diet would affect the population and how stress impacts people living through a disease epidemic.

The lecturer said she likens the spread of chronic disease to slow zombies, and infectious diseases to fast zombies. While some zombies might seem more threatening in the short term, both are dangerous to the global population.

"We are so scared of infectious disease, but nobody is afraid of chronic disease, which brings pain, suffering and many problems," she pointed out.

Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) from "The Walking Dead."
Gene Page/AMC

Bic said she will also discuss potential cures for a theoretical zombie crisis. Based on the fact that zombies tend to bite, she feels that a way to protect survivors from the undead might be found by studying insect models.

For example, "The Walking Dead" zombies have been shown to avoid uninfected humans if they smell like the undead. It's similar to how some mosquito repellants work. She postulates that if people can create a repellant that goes through their nervous system -- similar to how eating loads of garlic makes people's blood unappealing to mosquitoes -- they may be able to live safer, post-apocalyptic lives.

Most importantly, keeping good mental health is important during any crisis, Bic pointed out. Not getting proper nutrition can greatly affect that, and it can also reduce protection from the immune system.

Bic said that the idea of teaching important health lessons through pop culture isn't exactly a new concept. Telenovelas and other soap operas have been used in Central America, South America and Africa to tell human dramas and to teach health behaviors, including family planning.

"You can see on the TV, every person is so stressed out," Bic explained. "I want to talk about how they can deal with that. There are different ways to improve your health and different techniques on how to become more optimistic, how to see life in a different ways and how to listen properly. Many of the confrontations and problems are because people aren't listening carefully."