5 APRIL 1963, Page 5

Typhoid in Zermatt


ry HE classic British image of Switzerland as I the country which manages to be foreign without the indifference to cleanliness that foreignness so often seems to imply has been given a nasty dent by recent events at Zermatt. Perhaps even more disturbing has been the revelation that the local authorities were capable of trying to conceal the existence of the typhoid epidemic in order to avoid financial loss by the hotel industry of the resort.

It must be said, however, that no criticisms of the actions of these authorities by outsiders could be more severe than those which have ap- peared in the Swiss press. The demand has been made, in particular, for the resignation of M. Cachin, Director of the Zermatt Tourist Office, who seems mainly to have been responsible for the attempt to conceal the epidemic, and whose claim that to have cancelled the Gornergrat Derby would have caused a panic, is dismissed as ridiculous. The Valais Public Health Service has also been severely criticised for remaining doubt- ful, as late as the middle of March, whether a typhoid epidemic existed or not, when all they needed to do to convince themselves of the fact was to read the English newspapers. It appears that, even now, the Swiss press has been reproached for the publicity it has given to the outbreak, on the grounds that the tourist in- dustry will suffer. Fortunately, this rather peculiar point of view has been indignantly re- jected by the Central Committee of the Swiss Press Association.

If the epidemic has come as a shock to foreigners, it has been just as great a shock to the Swiss themselves in revealing an unsuspected weakness in their federal system of government, with its devolution of power, from the federal government, through the Cantons, right down to the communal level. It has shown that, too often, public health is the responsibility of local authorities who do not appreciate its impor- tance, or even, in certain areas, are too poor to do much about it.

The Canton of the Valais is such an area, and has even been called underdeveloped from this point of view, while it has been said that the Cantonal Public Health Service exists only on paper. While the idea of centralisation, ex- cept where absolutely essential, as in foreign affairs, runs counter to the whole Swiss tradition of government, it may well be that the Zermatt affair could lead to changes more important than, the resignation of a few officials who put financial interests before the health, or even the lives, of a large number of people. The Zermatt local authorities, by their attempt to conceal the epidemic, have clearly done a grave disservice, not only to Zermatt itself, which is now suffer- ing from the results of their actions, but also to the whole of Switzerland. It can only be hoped that the affair will at least mean that such an epidemic will never again be allowed to occur.

TIMOTHY is ill.