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Berlin Disease Control.

Mankind has a short memory. It helps people not to live in constant fear. And the longer it has been since the last case, the less aware we are of the danger.

Epidemics are nothing new, Corona is just the latest in a whole series of mass diseases that hit Germany.

Who remembers the Hong Kong flu epidemic between 1968 and 1970 that killed over a million people worldwide? In the Federal Republic alone, there were around 40,000 deaths. There had already been several pandemics in the 20th century. During the Spanish flu, after World War I, citizens in Western countries were exhorted to stay home, but few obeyed. At the time of the Asian flu and Hong Kong flu, people were limited to getting through the crisis, there was no general curfew. Today, people react much more sensitively. Increased life expectancy may be one of the reasons. .

So pandemics are nothing new, but between 1945 and 1989 there was a peculiarity, diseases and precautions became weapons in the arsenal of propaganda in East and West. Outbreaks in the other Germany were commented on in the media, always referring to the respective state doctrine as the supposed cause.

At the end of March 1962, there was an outbreak of bacterial dysentery in the GDR. By the middle of the last week of March at the latest, it was known that the capital of the GDR had become the scene of the most widespread epidemic to hit the territory of the GDR since the end of the war.

The MfS was alerted, and the search and counterintelligence apparatus of the East Berlin epidemic department went into action. The result was a disaster politically. The cause was butter contaminated with dysentery bacilli that had been sold in four East Berlin districts in the week before last in March.

The disease spread explosively through contact infection. As early as April 1, the capacity of East Berlin’s hospitals was no longer sufficient. Auxiliary hospitals had to be established. In addition to trained staff, students and People’s Police officers were used as caregivers.

It was not until April 4, more than a week after the wave of illness began, that the government broke the silence. It was not until that day that the SED announced the epidemic.

On April 8, an entry and exit ban was imposed on Berlin, but due to lack of control it did not take effect and it was too late anyway. Large parts of the GDR were now affected. The number of people sickened rose to 75,000, and the first fatalities were reported.

Nevertheless, the SED officials did not want to close schools and kindergartens. They did not want to give the Western propagandists – like the “Bild” newspaper, which claimed to have already discovered 100,000 sick people and 40 dead – any more excuses to retaliate for the campaign that had been sparked in East Berlin on the occasion of a West German smallpox outbreak.

Some of the contaminated butter came from the Soviet Union, of course, this was not admitted. Scattered rumors referred to China as the country of origin.

The propaganda machine started up. Largely publicized articles hailed the exemplary performance of physicians in the socialist system.

As the death toll remained low, the diarrhea-stricken Berliners were helped through the crisis by their sense of humor. The joke circulated, “Everything is getting better: East Berlin is the Ruhr.”

For the first time, RIAS and other West Berlin media were able to find something positive about the Berlin Wall. It had reliably kept the epidemic out of West Berlin. And this although it did not have the later dimensions in 1962. In The Wall Museum you can see the installations of that time.

The disease outbreaks in the West provided excellent targets for SED propaganda. Especially since Bonn, for dogmatic reasons, refused help. Willi Stoph, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers, offered three million vaccine doses to the Federal Republic in 1961 – as a humanitarian gesture for the Ruhr region, which was ravaged by polio; with 42 dead already, the crisis was acute. Adenauer declined. And the SED reported the “no”. The picture was clear; here healthy working people in the socialist state, there dangerous epidemic areas and high disease rates in capitalism.

Shortly before the Wall was built, GDR television warned of imported pathogens from the West. Travelers from the West were even offered free vaccinations.

Even one worked mostly with cover-up.

April 1963, a man in Aschersleben showed smallpox symptoms. It was an African who had been living in the GDR for half a year. Globalization as we know it today, and with it the rapid accessibility of all areas of the world, were not known at the time, certainly not in the isolated GDR.

There had been local outbreaks and deaths in West Germany, but not in East Germany. Smallpox vaccination was compulsory in both parts of Germany. The patient in Aschersleben was isolated, and all contact persons were located. 1,700 people were vaccinated as a precaution.

In the SED media, the action was justified by an outbreak of chickenpox.

The GDR experts waited for a report to the World Health Organization, which was actually required, until the laboratory results were available. After a few days the all-clear came from the laboratory, it was not a smallpox infection.

A few months later, an Interflug crew reported a possible smallpox infection. After landing in Berlin-Schönefeld, a woman was immediately isolated and taken to a clinic. Passengers and crew had to remain in the aircraft. and later taken to a temporary isolation ward. Fortunately, it was a false alarm; it was a strong reaction to the smallpox vaccine. Again, there were no media reports about the background.

MfS reports on the incident showed serious deficiencies in the health care system. There was a lack of a special hospital for disease cases and isolation facilities at airports. A hospital was planned in Berlin-Buch. It remained with the plan

The GDR was lucky when smallpox broke out in Kulmbach, Franconia, in the fall of 1965. A pensioner from the GDR returned home, she was immediately vaccinated again – as were all her contacts in the GDR. There were no contagions in the GDR.

In 1972, there was another case of smallpox in the Federal Republic. The GDR was alarmed, the state security took over. The available vaccine was controlled. Up to 50,000 doses were immediately available, and up to 1.4 million doses within 24 hours. The SED leadership was inoculated. More intensive checks were carried out on those entering the country. And in addition, the GDR established contact with the health authorities of the Federal Republic. The quarantine measures in the Hanover area had worked. More than 600 people in the vicinity of the diseased guest worker were isolated and 65,000 were revaccinated.

The GDR also took action. A woman from Hanover had entered Rostock. She was assessed as a direct contact and placed under strict house arrest. Then the border guards reported that her husband had also entered the country. In the middle of the route, the train to Rostock was stopped, but the MfS people could not locate the wanted man – the MfS border guards had given a false name. Later, the husband was found, and he was also placed under house arrest.

Again, an evaluation took place. Imported vaccination guns had proved necessary. However, there was only one of these per GDR district and, according to the report, they were “already heavily worn in some cases.” Spare parts were scarce, an in-house production “has not succeeded so far”.

To prevent smallpox epidemics, the GDR stuck with its compulsory vaccination, even though there was vaccine damage. Annually, health authorities recorded one to two deaths and some cases of brain inflammation as a result of vaccination. This was seen as justifiable. The case of the Yugoslavian guest worker remained the last recorded smallpox disease in all of Germany.

In 1979, the World Health Organization announced the end of smallpox. They were thus officially eradicated worldwide – a great success for modern medicine.

Public health as a result of the superiority of the socialist system – that was what the GDR was all about when it came to vaccination. The slogan was issued: “Socialism is the best prophylaxis”. Vaccinations against smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, tuberculosis and, from the 1970s, measles were mandatory. . Until the age of 18, adolescents received a total of 20 protective vaccinations – prescribed by the state

The coercive state had its advantages; while polio epidemics were still raging in the West in 1960, the centrally administered GDR society had been largely immunized against polio since 1958.

But there was also vaccination fatigue in the GDR. There have been spontaneous sick calls before vaccination appointments and refusals of shots by skeptical parents. In some regions, the vaccination rate fell below 50%. The SED reacted in its own way – with permanent vaccination centers and mass vaccinations in vacation camps, schools and factories.

By the end of the 1970s, the GDR was falling behind more and more in vaccination Too many vaccination appointments made people recalcitrant. Combination vaccines were not available. Epidemics, such as measles, which had been thought to have been conquered, reached East Berlin again in the 1980s. GDR vaccine production suffered from ancient machinery. Ampoules were sealed with increasingly poor quality rubber. Despite all health and vaccination programs, life expectancy in the East was almost three years lower than in the West in 1989.

However, the legend of the exemplary GDR vaccination and health care system persists to this day. At that time, it is thought, there could have been no shortage of protective masks. Yet intensive care already lacked modern equipment in normal operations.