The 2013 Boy Scouts of America National Jamboree – a great place to celebrate scouting and… get virtually infected by a zombie virus? This year’s Jamboree includes an activity designed to teach kids about the movement of infectious diseases. What better way, than to allow them to simulate a zombie epidemic?
Zombie Virus Game
How does it work? Scouts must have a Virus Tracker app downloaded in order to play, and they must register with the game in order to be ‘infected’ with the virus. Dr. Kristy Collins of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech explained the game to Decoded Science, saying that the zombies, ages 12 to 18, “…are given an opportunity to receive the needed vaccine by correctly answering an epidemiology quiz question, or by using the app to scan other players who have already obtained the vaccine.
Throughout the day, notifications are sent out to announce “newly discovered” mutations, which will turn the vaccinated players into Zombies if they do not obtain an updated vaccine. (Players can again obtain the needed vaccine by correctly answering an epidemiology quiz question, or by interacting with others who have already obtained the latest vaccine. There is also a resident scientist at the VBI tent, who will dispense the vaccine to those who ask good science questions.)
Individual and Team points are earned through recruiting others to join the game, and by scanning others with the virus and vaccinating them. Overall standings, individual and team rankings, and a variety of individual, team and game statistics can be viewed at any time.”
How do the players infect other kids? By scanning the code printed on a the scout’s address label, wrapped on his lanyard or scan the other child’s QR code, displayed in his Virus Tracker app. Dr. Collins tells us, “Players with labels can also vaccinate each other by visiting one of the multiple scanning booths that we have at the Jamboree.”
Infectious Disease and Bioinformatics
The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute Booth, the source of the zombie virus, is the result of funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health MIDAS group and Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. According to Dr. Collins, “The information we are collecting from the scouts is being used in simulations on how infectious diseases spread.”
Why is it important to simulate the spread of infectious diseases? Understanding the way in which a highly-contagious disease spreads among groups of people can help reduce the affect, by identifying at-risk populations and encouraging safe behavior as a preventative measure. One major obstacle is the sheer volume of data available, but computer algorithms can sort the data with ease, once given an appropriate sorting structure.
Using computers to sort and make sense of biological information has been around for yea. Not only does Google keep a regularly-updated Flu Trends Map every flu season, with fast and accurate information about the spread of the flu around the nation, researchers are also using Twitter and other social media signals to track flu symptoms to determine the spread of disease. With vast stores of information available online, only a computer could make sense of it all.
Of course there are no real zombies, but using the popular topic to teach kids about disease can increase interest, and spread information as well as a virtual virus.
Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. Virus Tracker. (2013). Accessed July 19, 2013.