Ebola panic ends after fever death

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The Independent Online
RELAX. There is no ebola outbreak in Europe. Germany breathed a collective sigh of relief as Olaf Ullmann expired in a Berlin hospital yesterday, probably of yellow fever.

The precise nature of his disease, contracted on a trip to the Ivory Coast, had remained a mystery almost to the end, but not his symptoms. Since Tuesday, when the cameraman was admitted to a Berlin hospital, Germans had been treated to a blow-by-blow account of his rapidly deteriorating condition.

"The brain is already out," screamed a banner headline of Bild Zeitung, the country's leading tabloid. The contents of the latest medical bulletin, also displayed in large type, read like war dispatches: "Kidneys and liver severely damaged." "Central nervous system under attack."

Since Tuesday, the cameraman from the eastern border town of Frankfurt- an-der-Oder had been a national celebrity. His passing would be deeply mourned, especially by television moguls and tabloid editors. For the story of Mr Ullmann had captured the nation's attention, triggering mass psychosis at a moment Germans were either already taking a holiday in suspiciously warm places, or just about to embark on one.

Nothing strikes a greater terror in Germans than exotic diseases. At this time of the year, with the nation in the grip of its southward migration, German magazines fill with health scares and tales of holidays gone wrong.

In the sad case of Mr Ullmann, the two ever-green variants combined and were driven to stratospheric heights of hype by the e-word.

"Ebola." Try it on your friends. Even those who have not seen the movie Outbreak are liable to turn queasy at the sound of those three syllables.

The ebola virus strikes without warning. There is no cure. The blood vessels explode, the flesh bursts through the skin before the victim dies of a multitude of haemorrhages.

Further gruesome details are available from any good German newsagent. Readers of Bild and other tabloids were able to soak up it all with breakfast every morning.

Then came the government's information offensive. The authorities threw open the door of the hospital where Mr Ullmann was kept, to reassure the public it was in no danger. The cameras went in close. They showed the fence, two metres high, built around the clinic, patrolled by armed guards and dogs. Doctors in space suits were pictured in front of hi-tech laboratory gizmos.

The entire staff of a hospital wing were imprisoned, struggling to contain an epidemic. Life was imitating art. The sequences would have been the envy of Hollywood. You expected Dustin Hoffman to pop up at any moment, wielding a lethal-looking pipette.

And all this was happening in Berlin, which for the past three weeks has been simmering in tropical heat. Now Germans were really scared. Helplines were set up after the switchboard of the city's Tropical Institute was jammed. Around the Charite hospital, you could at last find parking places.

The 181 passengers on Mr Ullmann's flight back from Africa had to be screened. His wife was put in quarantine, as was his travelling companion, a biologist. Neither showed any symptoms of any disease.

There was, of course, no outbreak. As doctors kept insisting, the chances of a European returning with ebola from the Ivory Coast, where no case has been recorded for years, are about as remote as being struck by a meteor. That much was explained by the serious press, but the tabloids refused to let a good story die. In yesterday's Bild, the report ruling out ebola was buried in the small print.

The real story is that Mr Ullmann had gone to a country known to be afflicted with yellow fever without proper protection. The yellow fever vaccine is among the most efficient. And since the virus is borne by mosquitoes, the cameraman could not have infected anyone else.

Meanwhile Bild has been studiously ignoring the saga surrounding the resumption of exports of British beef this week. But perhaps next week readers will find out more about this insidious threat to their health.