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The deadly history of the 1918 influenza pandemic

Orphans and other infants whose parents were ill or who had died being tended at Auckland’s Myers Kindergarten. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Whether New Zealand gets an epidemic this time remains to be seen, but in 1918, the body count left no doubt.

When the Spanish flu arrived in New Zealand in October 1918, it struck with a vengeance. It could be so swift-acting that a person could show no symptoms in the morning and be dead by nightfall.

Within two months, 9000 people were dead, half the number who died in the four years of World War 1. Many of the flu victims were young adults, some of them soldiers who had survived the trenches of World War 1 only to come home and succumb to the flu.

“It was short and sharp, from late October and it had petered out by December,” says University of Auckland history professor Linda Bryder. “Not only did it have that death rate, but it is estimated that up to 90% of the population contracted it.

Read more: The physical, emotional and economic fallout of Covid-19 | What you need to know about the coronavirus disease

“The other scary thing that is quite different from the current Sars coronavirus 2 and any of the others, such as [the first] Sars, is that in 1918 the main population group that died from it were between the ages of 20 and 40.”

The high incidence of mortality among otherwise fit young people is thought to be due to the way people’s immune systems reacted to the virus, attacking it with such ferocity that they overwhelmed their own bodies. Most people who died had complications, such as pneumonia. In 1918, there were no antibiotics.

Because it was so infectious, it attacked people from all sectors of society, though it had a higher rate among Māori, Bryder says. “The reason for that has never really been explained other than that perhaps their living conditions were so much worse.” There were 2500 Māori deaths out of a Māori population of 51,000, so their death rate was disproportionate, considering New Zealand’s population was a little over a million at the time. Adding to the fear and distress was that it left many orphans, because the virus attacked young adults.

Ambulances in Wellington during the 1918 flu epidemic. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library
From her studies of the 1918 epidemic, Bryder sees similarities and differences in reactions to today’s threat about the Covid-19 disease.

One similarity was the public’s tendency to panic, she says. In 1918, health authorities tried to keep people calm. One initiative was to establish “precautionary steam spray inhalation chambers”.

In Auckland, a chamber was set up in the Chief Post Office. People would enter and inhale a 2% solution of zinc sulphate, which would be “atomised by means of steam under pressure”. The aim was to help them acquire immunity to the virus, and though it was popular, with 1000 people a day passing through at the height of the epidemic, there was no evidence it worked.

The Medical Officer of Health at the time was quoted as saying, “It was of considerable mental value to the nervous.” Bryder thinks it may also, inadvertently, have been a good way of spreading the virus.

Little bottles of medicine were also dispensed by the Department of Health. Bryder has been unable to find out the medicinal components, if any, but they had a high alcohol content. “One volunteer manning a particular depot had been amazed by the 30,000 bottles that had been dispensed. ‘They seem to like it,’ he said.”

Another reason the alcoholic medicine might have been popular is that there was little entertainment. Places where large numbers of people could gather, such as swimming pools, pubs and picture theatres, were closed down. The exception was when the armistice was declared on November 11 – a cause for public jubilation – which probably further spread the virus among the crowds who turned out to celebrate the end of the war.

Bryder says both now and then there was a tendency to blame certain groups for introducing or spreading the virus. In Auckland, which was the focus of her case study of the 1918 epidemic, the finger was pointed at Asians and at women generally, who were deemed not to be looking after their own families – and the sick – well enough. In fact, women formed the bulk of a voluntary brigade who went to people’s homes to care for the sick.

Although public gatherings were avoided, there was no attempt, except in Coromandel, to quarantine people. Coromandel sealed itself off, allowing no one in or out by boat or car “and actually they didn’t get any cases, which was impressive, though it could have been good luck”.

Australia did try to quarantine itself and managed to hold the virus out till early 1919.

Public health advice during the epidemic was holistic, Bryder says, with a focus on healthy living. Hygiene messages were very much to the fore. The germ theory of diseases had only just been identified at the end of the 19th century. “They were becoming very conscious of cleanliness as a result. Kissing the Bible suddenly went out the window.”

Businesses were quick to pick up on the commercial possibilities and the therapeutic value of a range of products was promoted, regardless of how unlikely the claims were. In an era long before the Fair Trading Act ruled out false advertising, products including Lifebuoy soap, Oxo, Aspirin, quinine, opium, turpentine, iodine, ammonia, cinnamon, smoking, cocoa and disinfectant were all promoted as having properties that could either prevent the flu or ward it off.

Of course, none of them were a cure, but by the end of 1918, the virus had largely burnt itself out. “People who’ve written about it have called it the forgotten epidemic, because people just accepted it as an act of God. It was so much easier to focus on the war, and this epidemic came from nowhere and disappeared quickly, but it did leave a lot of dead in its wake.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan. Photo/ATL

Twice bitten

Samoa’s tragic history explains its recent travel restrictions.

At the height of the 1918 influenza epidemic that was killing New Zealanders, the Talune sailed into Samoa’s capital, Apia, from Auckland carrying cargo and passengers – and the Spanish flu virus.

The Talune had been quarantined in Fiji, but Samoa was under New Zealand administration at the time, and the New Zealand administrator, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Logan, allowed the ship to dock. Passengers known to be sick with the flu, which was at the time ravaging New Zealand, disembarked. As in New Zealand, the virus spread quickly, killing about 9000 people – about a quarter of Samoa’s small population at the time.

According to the New Zealand Government’s history website, a 1947 United Nations report described the Samoan episode as “one of the most disastrous epidemics recorded anywhere in the world during the present century, so far as the proportion of deaths to the population is concerned”.

“Samoa, I think, has never really forgiven New Zealand for that,” University of Auckland professor of history Linda Bryder says. “It did contribute to the resistance movement against New Zealand administration in Samoa.” Samoa gained independence from New Zealand on January 1, 1962.

Last year, Samoa was badly hit by a measles epidemic, which claimed 83 lives, mostly children.

This month, in the wake of the first Covid-19 case being confirmed in Auckland, the Samoan Government announced new restrictions on people arriving in Samoa. The total number of weekly commercial flights has been cut, and passengers are required to show a medical certificate issued within three days prior to their arrival in the capital, Apia.

“Due to New Zealand’s close proximity to Samoa and its confirmation of its Covid-19 case in Auckland, the increased risk of Covid-19 entering Samoa has elevated from high to very high and its impact on Samoa’s population remains [potentially] catastrophic,” a travel advisory issued by the Samoan Government and effective from March 2, states. The medical clearance must be shown before boarding passes are issued in countries, including New Zealand, where flights to Apia originate.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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