Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why Walkers Might Have Herpes

Some of the forever asked and never answered questions in the Walking Dead universe are: How did this happen?  Where did the Walker virus come from? (and) What is it, exactly?  Because these questions remain unanswered there’s plenty of opportunity to speculate by fans and it seems every other person out there has a theory.  As a fan I am no different…what probably is different is my theory.  My own personal theory about the Walker virus has to do with herpes.

Yes, herpes.  Not the STD or coldsore-causing herpes most immediately think of, but the herpesvirus family as a whole.  There are many different species within that family and certain ones in particular share surprising similarities to what is already known about the Walker virus.  The one that seems to share the most - and most important - connections is the Varicella-Zoster virus; comparisons can be made in both viruses’ overall communicability, latency, and reactivation.

Overall communicability

The first part of the name Varicella-Zoster refers to the first disease that the virus causes, which is better known as chickenpox.  You know, the (typically) kid’s disease with the itchy rash that can cover the whole body and drive a person nuts?  The disease that can spread like wildfire throughout classrooms and neighborhoods of the unvaccinated before the first kid even has those infamous bumps?  Yeah, that chickenpox.  Now there are likely three reasons it’s transmitted so easily: first, it is airborne through the mouth and virus-filled bumps (vesicles) of the rash, second, it can last a few hours or even a day or two outside a host, and third, a person remains contagious from 1-2 days before the rash appears until all those vesicles are scabbed over.

Given how quickly the Walker virus seemed to spread to the point that everyone had it, it’s not a stretch to consider this virus being airborne as well.  In fact, it’s really the only option that makes sense.  One cough from one infected person could easily infect hundreds and from those hundreds, thousands could be infected, and so on.  Generally speaking, if it’s airborne a virus can also be spread via skin contact, sexual contact, and any other exchange of fluids including/especially any containing said virus.  With all these modes of transmission going on and no one knowing the Walker virus even exists in the beginning a fast-spreading pandemic is practically a foregone conclusion.

Most viruses don’t last long outside a host body, yet the Varicella-Zoster virus can last up to two days; this spells trouble for the unvaccinated.  Picking up the toy of an infected child a day later could mean picking up the virus without ever having seen the risk coming.  If the Walker virus lasted the same amount of time it’d be just as contagious; if it lasted longer, if the virus could survive without a host for days or weeks, then it’d become exponentially contagious.  It would also explain why even those living out on a farm mainly removed from the rest of society (like the Greene family) might have it…all they’d need to do is grab a feedbag previously touched by an infected and they’d pick up the virus to spread to the rest of the farm.

As mentioned a person infected with chickenpox is contagious before their rash even appears, which makes spotting (and then avoiding) them more difficult.  If the Walker virus is initially without obvious signs and/or symptoms as well then, again, the communicability is heightened.  How can you avoid infected people if they don’t even know they are infected?  That being said there should be some indication that a virus has entered the body eventually, even with the Walker virus, so…what might be the first signs and symptoms of it?  It’d be easy to say turning into a Walker is the first sign/symptom, but I honestly doubt that that is the initial (and thus only) indication.  It makes far more sense that the virus is dismissed as some other illness because the signs and symptoms are too common and fleeting to disrupt and cause worry for the infected individual.  (“I think I caught a cold, no biggie.”  “I knew I should’ve gotten my flu shot.”  “I think we need to switch detergents, this one’s giving me a rash.” … “Never mind, I guess it resolved itself.”)

Now you have a highly contagious Walker virus with initial signs and/or symptoms that potentially go unnoticed or disregarded…but why all that time between initial infection and when Walkers appear?


Herpes comes from the Greek word herpein, meaning “to creep”, which refers to the latent, recurring, diseases the members of this virus family are known to cause.  The length and number of latency periods varies depending on species, but again I feel the Varicella-Zoster virus is most comparable to what’s possibly occurring with the Walker virus.

In the time after the Varicella (chickenpox) aspect and before the Zoster (shingles, to be discussed later) aspect of the Varicella-Zoster virus there is a period of dormancy.  The virus is still in the body, but now inactive as it gathers in the nerves cells based somewhere along the Central Nervous System.  During the latency period there are no signs or symptoms, the virus is not contagious, and is often forgotten about by even those infected with it.  Forgotten because the latency period is often decades long.  Frequently the virus remains dormant for 50+ years, which in some people can be almost their entire lifetime.  Long enough to forget the virus remains inside your body, long enough to not make the connection between the chickenpox you had at seven and the shingles now appearing at sixty.

It would be easy to not see the Walkers coming (so to speak) if the virus causing it had a latency period as long as the Varicella-Zoster virus.  Looking at things closely and speaking more accurately though, it’s most likely that the Walker virus has a latency period that’s actually longer.  Longer than that of the Varicella-Zoster virus and longer than a lifetime.  Considering no one is ever shown turning into a Walker pre-death it is logical to presume that it is a person’s actual death that triggers the virus’s reactivation.  With that long of a latency period it’d certainly be understandable if no one was able to make the connection to whatever happens when the Walker virus first enters the body and someone turning into a Walker at the end of their life.

But what, if any, similarities do the Walker virus and Varicella-Zoster virus have when reactivated?


How the Varicella-Zoster virus is reactivated is still something of a mystery; there are any of a number of triggers for reactivation, and sometimes none at all.  Known reasons all seem to involve a compromised immune system due to things like: old age, other illnesses (from colds to cancers), immunosuppressive therapy, and/or stress.  Whatever the trigger is the disease that appears as a result is always Herpes Zoster, better known as shingles.

Shingles is a different disease from chickenpox even though they are caused by the same virus.  Chickenpox involves a rash of incredibly itchy, virus-filled, bumps that are spread throughout the body.  Shingles involves a rash of incredibly painful, virus-filled, bumps that are focused in a horizontal strip on only one side based from the center of the body outwards.  Varicella is spread throughout the cells of the body; Zoster is concentrated in sensory nerve cells gathered in a bundle whose base is at the spine or brain.  Two very different diseases with two distinct presentations both coming from the same exact virus.

The Walker virus might similarly be a virus that causes one disease to start and then a completely different one post-reactivation.  This would further explain why no one’s figured out where the Walkers or the virus itself came from.  It’d be rather difficult to make a proper connection with a virus that enters someone’s body early in their life causing a minor illness and a disease that reanimates their corpse after their death.  With two separate presentations of the same virus it’d be somewhat logical to dismiss a possible connection at the beginning of the outbreak and, by the time the zombie apocalypse is in full swing, it’s too late to properly study a connection at all.

Of course there is also something else that the Walker and reactivated Varicella-Zoster virus have in common and that's where the infection occurs.  The Herpes Zoster rash occurs where it does because the virus has housed itself in nerve cells attached somewhere along the Central Nervous System.  After the initial chickenpox infection the virus goes dormant, hiding out along nerves, where it will cause painful inflammation when reactivated.  Likewise the Walker virus is shown to focus on the Central Nervous System - specifically the brain stem or “lizard brain” - and causes inflammation the CDC's Dr Jenner from The Walking Dead episode “TS-19” says is comparable to meningitis (something certain herpes viruses, including Varicella-Zoster, can cause).

There is, of course, no virus that is precisely like the Walker virus.  Perhaps it’s a virus that evolved naturally from one in the herpesvirus family (viruses are known to evolve over time just like any other organism) or a mixture of a number of various virus families created in some lab that was released?  Something tells me that the writers of the shows and comics will never fully explain the mysteries surrounding the virus, but that’s part of what makes the Walking Dead verse fun.  People can develop their own theories about the Walker virus, what it is, and where it came from.  One can find connections to the real world or even other fandoms.  They can imagine a mixture and/or evolution of known viruses, or some recently uncovered giant virus that (unlike past ones) is dangerously infectious to humans, or some totally new virus forming or being made, or they can imagine something else entirely.  The possibilities are as endless as the theories and all of them might have merit.

Do you have a theory on the Walker virus?  What is it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ode to Sociopathic Love: Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish

Many sociopaths have two relationship categories they put others into: the possessions and the exploits.  Both are important and the sociopath will work to keep both intact and in relatively good standing as long as the relationship remains beneficial...or at least does not become harmful.  Given sociopaths use everyone around them and can easily abandon even those closest to them without a second thought we need first to distinguish between possessions and exploits.  

Possessions are those the sociopath loves; the individuals they'll never completely let go, work to protect from others, and strive to both get and keep even if it might prove a risk to them.  For whatever reason those filed under possessions make the sociopath feel something consistently and deeply enough that they wish to keep them around even if they can't get everything they want out of the person.

The alternative is an exploit, which is pretty much everyone else that's useful to the sociopath.  They're to be taken advantage of until no longer beneficial and then tossed away like an empty carton of ice cream.  There's no feelings attached to these people and they get no protection outside what the sociopath might give to cover their own ass - basically if an exploit is still needed, but in trouble, the sociopath will work to help them only so they themselves don't fall into danger.  If lost in some way an exploit can usually be replaced or their absence worked around with little distress.

This categorizing of people is something Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish does in the series Game of Thrones with the four women who end up closest to him - Catelyn, Lysa, Ros, and Sansa.

Catelyn (Tully) Stark definitely qualified as a possession to Littlefinger.  It's possible she started out as an exploit - an easily accessible highborn girl he could seduce and marry to raise his status - but at some point in their childhood Littlefinger ended up legitimately falling in love with Cat.  So much so he risked his life to try and win her hand when they were young.  The clearest indication she was a possession is that he never completely let her go.  Like Hannibal Lecter with Clarice Starling in a previous piece Littlefinger had no trouble functioning for years without her in his life, but the moment she reappeared his feelings seemed to return fully.  He betrayed her husband to remain safely on the winning side, yes, but also to eliminate the competition so it's no surprise he promptly suggested they get together after the man's execution.  That he made the overture while returning Ned’s body to her showed both his lack of empathy and almost single-minded desire to have Cat for himself.  (It's really a shame the show didn't explore his initial reaction to Catelyn's murder as it might've clarified his level of caring even further - loss of a possession may arouse signs of general upset, loss of an exploit little more than a shrug of the shoulders.)

A mirror to Catleyn is her younger sister, Lysa (Tully) Arryn.  Despite (or perhaps because of) a crazy obsession with Petyr she was never his initial target for seduction and marriage, but was kept as one of his exploits instead.  I'd say favorite, but that's a strong word...maybe most valuable?  Either way Lysa's someone he remained charming to so he could get her to do important and dangerous things for him - like kill her husband and blame the wealthiest family in Westeros for it, which just happen to be some of the catalyst events for the entire series.  While Petyr kept a physical distance from her for a long time he ultimately married her when it proved more beneficial to do so.  In exchange for the marriage Petyr became Lord of the Vale, thus adding another title to the ones he'd been racking up.  Lysa, on the other hand, got shoved out the Moon Door by Petyr when she tried to kill her niece, Sansa Stark, and started to spill every secret she ever kept for him in a jealous rage.  Littlefinger felt nothing for her; he had no trouble using and then discarding her once she ceased being valuable to him.  I have little doubt he was kind to her when they were children both to appear in a good light to Catelyn and set up a beneficial relationship to play upon later, but none of his interest in Lysa was remotely genuine outside what she could do for him.

As one of his prostitutes Ros was most certainly an exploit.  Someone to make money off of even after he seemed to trust her enough with extra duties and to tutor her in his business.  Perhaps he thought her more clever than others in his employ, but he never cared about her.  She was there to gather information on clients (like any other who worked for him), assist in his paperwork, and aid in running his business when he was too busy to be hands-on himself.  That was the extent of their relationship; he had no real feelings for her outside what she was worth to him.  Petyr himself confessed - in a calm, gently-toned, speech that rivaled one of Ramsay Bolton's giddy grins in shudder-worthiness - that she was an investment and if she proved a bad one she'd go the way of a previous woman he'd sold off to be tortured (presumably) to death.  True to his word the moment she was detrimental to him Littlefinger sold Ros to Joffrey to meet the same death-by-torture fate...though I doubt it ever haunted him.

Everyone knows that Petyr has a certain affection for Sansa Stark (let the creepyship flags fly!), but whether he'd qualify her as a possession or just a very special exploit is still yet to be seen.  Their story is ongoing and many of Littlefinger's actions involving Sansa can be read multiple ways: romantic, opportunistic, or both.  His frequent references to how much she is like her mother, Catelyn, can be seen as genuine overtures to a suitable replacement for his lost love.  It can also be seen as sweet-talking an impressionable young girl to make her feel special and cared-for in a dangerous place (or five).  Killing her tormentor, King Joffrey, and stealing her away from the capital could be seen as a heroic act, but those things benefit him as well.  Helping the Tyrells get rid of Joffrey worked to solidify his alliance with them and taking off with Sansa pretty much gave him a portable ace up his sleeve.  Marrying her off to Ramsay was a smart move for Petyr because it helps him cover even more of his bases as wars continuously break out, but it was ultimately a terrible one for Sansa.  The question is: did Petyr knowingly marry Sansa to a sadist rivaling Joffery without caring for her safety or did his simply miscalculate?  The truth is unless Petyr is made aware of Sansa's time at Winterfell and current status (whatever that may be, thanks cliffhanger!) it's impossible to tell.  But if she's a possession he will likely go after her to repair any damage to their relationship as well as seek revenge upon the Boltons if at all possible; if she's an exploit he'll likely still go after her so long as she's a valuable asset, but revenge is unlikely unless it benefits him as well.  Only time will tell…

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Back To School Safety: Bullying

School's here folks!  Time to learn new things and get a refresher course in the classics for those of every age.  It also means that new and old safety concerns will arise depending on the grade level your child is going into.  One in particular seems pervasive in all grades though...bullying.  Sometimes it even goes beyond the standard K-12 and, sadly, there's no magic wand or trick to rid oneself of the problem.  It happens.  Kids can be a bully, a victim, or even both.  Whatever category they fall into there are things to help prevent bullying, signs to look out for, and things to do if you suspect it's occurring.

(In order to keep things simple I'm going to stick to lists; lists for books, school supplies, classes, and now safety.)


Prevent your child from becoming a VICTIM:
  • Instill self-confidence in your child - a confident child is less likely to be seen as an easy target
  • Help your child establish good social skills - bullies aren't going to go after a child who is well liked and has friends that'll stand up for them
  • Teach your child to speak out for him or herself - bullies tend to target those who fold easily, run away, and/or stay silent so a child who stands up and speaks out is less likely to be a target
  • Tell your child that they should seek help from you and other caring adults if harassed - at the very least someone else, someone with more power, is being made aware of the problem

Prevent your child from becoming a BULLY:
  • Present yourself as a model of non-violent behavior - children model themselves after the key adults in their lives so, if you're not a bully, they're less likely to be one
  • Clearly state that violence is not acceptable
  • Assist your child in finding non-violent strategies for anger management and conflict resolution - some kids just aren't emotionally mature enough to keep from lashing out so need to be taught more constructive alternatives
  • Seek help from mental health/school counselors to help stop bullying and aggressive behavior - sometimes things are beyond your control and seeking outside help may be the best option

A child being bullied may often:
  • Withdraw socially; "lose" friends without apparent cause - bullies will frequently try and isolate a victim from whatever friends they have (often via rumors or bullying those around their key victim) in order to further dominate the victim
  • Feel isolated, alone, and sad
  • Feel picked on or persecuted - both because they are and because it's likely that others aren't sticking up for him/her even if aware of the bullying
  • Feel rejected and not liked - again, because it's unlikely others are sticking up for him/her even if aware or a witness to the bullying
  • Complain of illness - because they are getting sick from stress and/or so they don't have to go to school
  • Not want to go to school; avoid certain classes or skip school altogether - they're avoiding the bully
  • Bring home damaged possessions or report them “lost” - the bully having either damaged or taken them
  • Cry easily; display mood swings and/or talk of hopelessness
  • Talk about running away
  • Talk of suicide
  • Threaten violence to self and/or others
  • Have changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Take or attempt to take “protection” to school (a stick, knife, gun, etc.)
  • Display “victim” body language: hang head, hunch shoulders, avoid eye contact
A bully may often:
  • Seek to dominate and/or manipulate others
  • Enjoy feeling powerful and in control (whether they really are or not)
  • Be a poor winner (boastful and arrogant) and/or a poor loser (aggressive and threatening)
  • Seem to derive satisfaction from other’s fears, discomfort, or pain
  • Be good at hiding behaviors or do them when/where adults can’t notice
  • Be excited/entertained by conflicts between others
  • Blame others for his/her problems
  • Display uncontrollable anger
  • Display patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and/or other aggressive behaviors
  • Have a history of discipline problems
  • Have a history of violent and aggressive behaviors
  • Display intolerance and prejudice towards others
  • Use drugs, alcohol, and/or be a member of a gang
  • Lack empathy towards others
Key side note on signs of a bully: the bullies of yesteryear are on their way out.  Frequently the bullies of today are popular, well-liked by teachers and fellow students, and at first glance may lack many of the signs listed above.  They are not always the "bad kids" who've been in trouble repeatedly for aggressive or illicit activities; though many of the emotional and/or psychological aspects (such as enjoying power and control and having a lack of empathy towards others) will remain the same.  This is important to keep in mind when confronting any bullying issue.

It (Might've) Happened...Now What?

If you suspect your child is being bullied:
  • Make sure your child knows being bullied is not his or her fault - it's both common and normal for any victim to think they brought the attack upon themselves in some way
  • Let your child know that he or she does not have to face being bullied alone - family, school staff, and peers are all there as support (current or potential)
  • Discuss ways of responding to bullies - this should not include responding aggressively; fighting will likely just get them in trouble as well and, if school staff isn't aware of the situation, they may end up seeing the victim as the bully.  Instead discuss the options listed below:
  • Teach your child to be assertive - assertive people are less likely to be bullied in general
  • Tell your child not to react, but to walk away (preferably to the nearest adult) - bullies are looking for a reaction, if they don't get one they may move on/give up (and if pursued then your child will find safety and witnesses in the presence of an adult)
  • Tell your child to report bullying immediately to a trusted adult - once people are informed about the problem further steps can be taken
  • Contact the school/teacher - for the same reason mentioned above...and, no matter who they tell, remind the victim that telling is not "tattling"
If you think your child is a bully:
  • Be sure that your child knows any form of bullying is not acceptable behavior
  • Explain to your child the penalties for bullying and be sure to enforce them fairly and consistently
  • Help your child learn alternative ways to deal with anger and frustration
  • Teach and reward more appropriate behavior
  • Work out a way for your child to make amends for the bullying
  • Help your child develop an understanding of the impact of their bullying on the target
  • Seek help or counseling if the behavior continues
  • Stay clam, especially if contacted by the school or another child's parent/guardian; try not to become angry and/or defensive.  Make sure to really listen and be objective.  Remember this is ultimately about the well-being of your child as much as any other child involved
One other thing I want to touch on is the newest version of bullying that's becoming increasingly popular...Cyberbullying.  This is a form of bullying done online and via cellphones that can include everything from name-calling and threats to creating pages to bash the victim and fake profiles to impersonate others (such as the victim or a boy/girl interested in the victim).  Those who cyberbully can be different than the average bully due to the anonymity that being online and/or on a cellphone can provide.  Rather than pretend to understand all its intricacies and/or risk expanding this piece far beyond the "quick read" I intend here are a few sites specifically on cyberbullying for those interested:
  • Stop Cyberbullying
  • Cyber-Bullying Prevention
  • MetLife Defender: Online Child Safety - this site has a range of articles dealing with cyberbullying along with other potential online dangers.  They also have an Anti-Bullying App available that may help you uncover potential cyberbullying involving your child.  The articles are free and they offer a 30-day free trial for their MetLife Defender plan (which has the app).  ...And just to be clear no one's paying me to mention the site or app, they just seem potentially useful tools for the concerned parent.