How a Swiss Ski Resort Was Ravaged by Typhoid and Survived - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Outbreaks can devastate tourist hot spots — and use them to spread.

By Denise Hruby

This might sound familiar: Stories of people falling ill shrugged off, physicians’ warnings and stories in foreign media dismissed. Like so many towns, provinces and countries across the globe this past year, the Swiss village of Zermatt could have acted sooner. Only in Zermatt, the critical year was not 2020, but 1963, and their enemy was typhoid fever.

Located at the foot of Switzerland’s emblematic mountain the Matterhorn, the village lived off winter tourists, drawing more than 7,000 well-to-do skiers per week to its upscale hotels. But in February of ’63, a man working on a construction site in a neighboring village was admitted to the hospital. After a week, physicians diagnosed typhoid, a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever so high it can be fatal.

Though not spread via aerosols like the coronavirus, typhoid can spread quickly through contaminated water and food — and hygiene standards in Zermatt in the ’60s, particularly related to the local water and sanitation systems, were known to be abysmal. Tourism had grown so rapidly in the small village that hotels simply dumped feces out in nature, and sewage water was channeled into rivers and lakes. From there, bacteria could easily have entered water systems. But as the infection spread, despite the high risks and growing numbers of people being hospitalized, authorities weighed public health against the tourism dollars they stood to lose. They kept quiet.

A prestigious ski derby hosted by Zermatt in mid-March was set to bring several thousand additional guests to the village. Trains had been chartered, and officials decided not to cancel. Pierre Calpini, head of the regional health authority, later defended his decision to go through with the event. A lockdown was out of the question, he told Germany’s Spiegel magazine: “That would be inappropriate not only from a practical but also from an epidemiological point of view,” Spiegel quoted him saying in late March 1963. 

By then, authorities’ inaction had already led to widespread criticism. The day the derby began, dozens of cases were confirmed, with some isolated in a school building and at least 20 others flown out of town via helicopter. Newspapers across the globe reported on the events. The Sunday Times called conditions in Zermatt “scandalous.” When a lockdown was eventually imposed, tourists fled the village in panic. But it was too late.

At the final count, a total of 437 people — locals as well as tourists from as far away as the U.S. — had contracted typhoid. Unwittingly, dozens carried the disease back home. About 40 cases were diagnosed in the U.K., seven in Germany, four in the Netherlands, three in France and another three in Austria. Two Swiss nationals and a 25-year-old Brit died. 

By late March, when ski season would normally be in full swing, hotels were empty, streets deserted. Locals feared that no tourists would ever return to the village. 

Typhoid epidemic Zermatt 1963: Desinfection of clothes

Disinfecting clothes during the typhoid epidemic.

Source Kuhn/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty

Though born after 1963, Mayor Romy Biner-Hauser is familiar with the village’s history. For any incident, she says, “it’s really about trying to see the positive sides, and it’s about how you deal with it.” 

Authorities may have failed at the time, but the village — and Switzerland as a whole — came out stronger. Zermatt invested millions to install a state-of-the-art water filtration and sanitation system. Nationwide, authorities addressed sanitation issues, and implemented laws and regulations to better protect water resources. By 1971, waste water cleaning regulations were set at a federal level.

Most notably, Switzerland completely overhauled its epidemic law, a relic from 1886. Informing national authorities and the public of infectious diseases outbreaks became mandatory; doctors and experts would be in charge of future responses and a total of 30 diseases were put on a watchlist. 

In addition, tourists who had become sick were offered generous compensation packages: a free, three-week holiday in Switzerland and a full refund of any medical bills or lost income.

“Every crisis also offers opportunities,” Biner-Hauser says. Today, Zermatt boasts more than 2.2 million overnight stays per year, making it one of the world’s most popular and best-known skiing destinations for tourists from every corner of the world. And its lessons may have helped nearby resorts: When coronavirus cases were detected near the site of the Engadin ski marathon in Graubünden, Switzerland, this February, authorities didn’t hesitate to cancel it.

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