You Have What? Mysterious Illness in Germany

Germans get sick like everybody else. But some of the diseases they come down with are often only to be found in Germany. Combined with an aversion to medication, it's no wonder the German population is dropping.

The following is based on a real conversation:

Visitor to Germany: Hey Detlef, how are you today?

Detlef: Not good.

Visitor: Oh no? What's wrong?

Detlef: I don't feel well. I've had a Kreislaufzusammenbruch.

Visitor: Ummm.

Detlef: A circulatory collapse.

Visitor (worried): Have you called an ambulance!? Should I take you to the hospital?!

Detlef (confused): No. But I stayed home from work today….

Circulatory collapse is a major health problem in Germany. Indeed, only recently, former-German-politician-turned-television-dancer Heide Simonis recently hung up her dancing shoes because of suffering a Kreislaufzusammenbruch. The odd thing is that in its mild, irritating, I-need-to-skip-work-and-lie-down form, this is a uniquely German phenomenon. Elsewhere, if people suffer a circulatory collapse, they die.

And that's not the only uniquely German health problem. The Social Democrats -- Germany's leading center-left political party -- recently had to swap leaders because party chairman Matthias Platzeck suffered a Hörsturz. A what? In English, it's called Acute Hearing Loss -- but good luck finding much information on it. The German Wikipedia entry for Hörsturz is pages long and talks about how serious stress can lead to a sudden loss of hearing. Acute Hearing Loss doesn't even make an appearance in the English version of Wikipedia.

In other words, not only are there cultural differences to be aware of when travelling to Germany, there also exist a variety of diseases  you might catch here that simply don't exist in your home country. Drafts  in Germany can be particularly dangerous, being blamed for all manner of problems including a serious flu. And if you end up with a sore throat, be sure to keep in wrapped in a scarf -- even in super-hot summer temperatures. That helps in Germany -- if nowhere else.

Perhaps the oddest thing about German attitudes to health, however, is not the rather quirky diseases they repeatedly fall victim to, but what they do about it once they do get sick. When most of the world comes down with a disease like bronchitis, for example, they start popping antibiotics with abandon. After all, one of the benefits of living in the modern day and age is modern medicine. No longer are hacksaws used for amputations and no longer is bronchitis a serious health problem.

But Germans? For many Teutons, braving a couple weeks of bronchitis-induced suffering is far preferable to risking their health with something as dodgy as antibiotics from a major pharmaceutical concern. (As soon as they're healthy, though, they're apt to celebrate by puffing away  on a pack of smokes and putting back a few liters of beer at their local pub.)

Other medicines, too, are viewed with a less-than-healthy skepticism. Aspirin, invented in Germany, is shunned by millions of Germans wary of ingesting "chemicals." And head to a German pharmacy for symptoms ranging from serious internal bleeding to double vision and unless you insist you want serious drugs, you're likely to be sent away with a pack of herbal tea. If you do get actual medicine, you can count on it being doled out in tiny portions compared to the ridiculously massive bulk packages that pill-popping Americans so celebrate.

But as cautious as Germans are about medicine, their methods seems to be working. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the number of employee days lost to illness has been cut in half and last year, days lost were at their lowest level since 1976 -- when such statistics were collected for the first time. Much of the change recently can be attributed to the rising costs of medical care in Germany and a new quarterly surcharge levied to visit the doctor. But who knows, maybe that homeopathy stuff really does work?


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