Foreigners visiting Romania often worry about health hazards implicit in visiting what was until fairly recently a Communist dictatorship. I tell them not to worry about it, since in the cities the water and food are all perfectly clean by European and American standards. However, there is a serious health hazard that stalks Romania, one which foreigners rarely think of. If the reports are true, then this epidemic is responsible for numerous illnesses, hospitalizations, and even deaths. It is little publicized in official sources, but nearly any Romanian on the street will be able to tell you all about it.

I’m talking about curent.

Curent in this context means "draft", as in a drafty door, or opening a window to let in a draft. People from outside Romania may believe that a draft is a nuisance (if you’re cold) or a welcome relief (if you’re too warm), but the Romanians will set you straight. If you catch a draft, you are in mortal peril.

The early symptoms of catching a draft include a headache, toothache, soreness of the neck, stiff joints, stuffy nose, sore throat, coughing, or sneezing. If untreated, the draft will continue to worm its way into your system and metastasize into pneumonia, arthritis, polio, and dementia. People have died from catching drafts. Especially vulnerable are the elderly and small children, which is why members of both demographics are traditionally dressed in the warmest clothes that they can find all through the summer—the best defense against the draft is a set of wool stockings and a scarf, even if it’s 40 C outside.

I had been in Romania for a while and heard about curent a few times, but the true seriousness of curent only struck me when the summer began. At the school where I was teaching I wandered into the kitchen, where a group of six women were preparing a meal for some guests. It was hot outside, and several pots of boiling water were on the burners around the kitchen, turning the crowded little kitchen into a sweltering sauna. After a few minutes I went over and opened the window, only to be immediately shouted down by the women. I was letting in a draft.

But weren’t they hot? Indeed they were, and I could see the sweat and discomfort on several of their faces. But the health dangers of cool moving air were far too great to risk for mere comfort.

I observed similar things on several other occasions. On crowded public buses during the summer heat, any attempt to open a window would be countered by immediate protestations about the draft. Friends and neighbors would close the windows of my room for me if they noticed them open, to protect me from the draft’s depredations. I heard a young woman complaining of a persistent headache and nausea which was blamed on sleeping with her head too close to her computer’s exhaust fan. It was a small draft, but it was enough.

Curiously, a draft’s lethality seems to be greatly reduced outside of Romania, to the point where many foreigners don’t concern themselves with it at all, and even claim to enjoy having a window open on a warm day. That doesn’t mean that it’s not real, however. Indeed, it’s as real as Korean Fan Death, another silent killer whose victims lie largely in a single country.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.