It’s Labor Day weekend and Dr. Ali Khan is walking through the halls of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta. To his left, a group of excited superheroes check out each other’s costumes. To his right, a man wearing a top hat peers over his goggles to give directions to Princess Leia. A small fairy tugs on her wings and looks nervously at a couple of zombies nearby.
Anyone who gives Khan a second glance probably assumes that he’s a Star Trek character; with his Commissioned Corps khaki uniform and his “Khan” nametag, he could very easily be trying to conjure up a version of the title character from “The Wrath of Khan.” But Khan is here to talk about something much more thrilling than any number of science fiction scenarios: public health.
Every year, Dragon*Con, “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe,” takes over downtown Atlanta for Labor Day weekend. With about 40,000 attendants, Dragon*Con hosts a variety of performances and activities, including costume fashion shows, science fiction actors, musical performances, and panels on everything from podcasting and puppet design to astrophysics.
These Are the Ways the World Will End… or are they?
This year Khan has been invited to Dragon*Con as a panelist for the “These Are the Ways the World Will End” session, during which he and six other panelists tackle the real science behind such doomsday scenarios as solar flares, asteroid impacts, super volcanoes, global disease pandemics, and a zombie apocalypse.
The panel is sponsored by Dragon*Con’s Skeptic Track. According to co-founder Derek Colanduno, Skeptic Track is devoted to critical thought and “making people care more about reality than fiction.” By incorporating pop culture, Colanduno hopes to attract a wider audience than would normally attend a science presentation. It’s working: three of the hotel’s conference rooms have been joined together, but are still not large enough to seat the enthusiastic crowd of over 400 people. Many are standing in the back and along the walls eager to learn what the panel has to say about the world’s future.
Khan’s first discussion topic is whether an infectious disease could wipe out the entire human race. A pandemic could be responsible for the deaths of many people, as they have in the past, and Khan discusses several examples, including SARS, smallpox, and the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed about 1% of the U.S. population. Keeping the U.S. safe from disease threats is Khan’s day job, and he assures the audience that he’s pretty imaginative when it comes to defeating disease outbreaks. Khan stresses that even though many are worried about terrorists or mad scientists creating pandemic diseases, the real concern is Mother Nature. “Mother Nature is much more creative than we are,” he says. “If you look at the 1918 flu, that was just a natural event–what I call public health misadventures… and lots of people were killed.”
But could a pandemic kill every person on the planet? Not likely. As Khan points out, even diseases that were once considered to have 100% fatality, such as rabies, now have survivors. The doomsday scenario also assumes that 100% of people become infected, which “does not happen for good biological reasons,” Khan says. So while we need to practice good public health to prevent illness and deaths from pandemics, we don’t have to worry about our entire species being wiped out.
Next, Khan speaks about whether or not there could be a biological basis for a zombie virus. The panel discusses whether or not a virus could exist that could create neurological problems. According to Khan, “It’s unlikely. Most zombie movies either have magical thinking or poor science… Is it going to end the world? I don’t think so.”
When Khan asks how many people have heard of the CDC zombie preparedness campaign, the crowd erupts in cheers. Zombies are popular at Dragon*Con, which hosts several zombie-themed events, including a zombie prom. According to Khan, “Zombies have been a really good way to get people to engage with preparedness… it served as a great bridge to talk about public health in general. All of a sudden, people are willing to hear about public health and how interesting it is, because we’ve mixed it with something they already want to hear about, zombies.”
Derek Colanduno is also enthusiastic about how CDC used the zombie campaign to promote public health preparedness; it’s one of the reasons he invited Khan to participate in the panel. “To me, it was the smartest thing ever,” he says. “It’s pretty much what the rest of the skeptic people have been trying to do with science forever. Ninety-eight percent of people will never get [preparedness] unless you make it [accessible] like this… you’ll never get anyone to care at all unless you make it accessible.”
Building a bridge to public health
Khan agreed to participate in Dragon*Con to reach a different audience. “CDC traditionally has the audience we reach through our websites or press conferences around outbreaks, and things like that. I think we need to be a lot more innovative in the ways we reach out to our communities, which are very broad at Dragon*Con! It’s truly a cross-section of America. I saw people who were every age, every gender, every race, people from all various domains.”
Khan is excited to share his knowledge and love of public health with a brand new audience. “What we do in public health is also exciting… going out to fight an Ebola outbreak, or going to Haiti because there’s an outbreak of cholera… that’s exciting! It’s not the stuff you see in the movies and the comic books, so people don’t know about it, but what we do is very exciting.”
Into the sunset
After speaking with a few people following the panel, Khan leaves Dragon*Con as silently as he came. Around him, people are dressed to fight imaginary dragons, ghosts, demons, and wraiths, but Khan fights the real monsters – public health emergencies like pandemic influenza, outbreaks of cholera and Ebola, and the aftermath of natural disasters. Unlike the heroes of science fiction, his work does not end.
Planning on being in NYC October 15th? Check out Khan at Comic Con. He’ll be speaking at “Zombie Summit: How to Survive the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse” Saturday, October 15 at 7:45.
What are your thoughts on how the world might end? What about zombies, do you think they are a good tool for engaging a new audience? Or maybe you have some stories from Dragon Con. Leave a comment!