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1918 lnfluenza Pandemic: New Zealand Fatalities

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1918 lnfluenza Pandemic: New Zealand Fatalities

In 1917 and early 1918, the H1N1 strain of influenza swept the world, reaching New Zealand in early summer. It was carried home by soldiers returning from Europe at the end of the First World War. Over 8,000 New Zealanders died. The influenza epidemic became New Zealand’s forgotten disaster, as people tried to forget the horror of the First World War. Healthy adults proved particularly vulnerable while the young and old, with weaker systems, seemed to have a better chance of survival.

The 1918 epidemic appears to have had its source in Haskell County, Kansas. It spread through military recruits and thence to the European theatre of war. Halfway through the elaborate burial service of the first soldier-victim at Ede, Holland, the bugler playing the Last Post collapsed. The military chaplain said gravely: My friends, this is the first. Which of us will be the next?

From the battlefields, the scourge spread throughout the world. The Great War was not the cause but a complicating factor in the advance of the plague. Soldiers weakened by mustard gas, shell-shock, injury and illness were being sent to field hospitals or their homes. This population was susceptible to and could easily spread influenza. The Armistice was signed at a time when the illness was most rife, and excited civilians revelled in what became dance-of-death celebration.

By mid-November 1918, influenza had gripped New Zealand. Which ship carried the deadly flu to this country has never been proved conclusively. The Niagara often gets the blame. The Niagara sailed from North America and, on 12 October, docked in Auckland. She carried soldiers and civilians, including Prime Minister William Massey and his deputy, Sir Joseph Ward. It was widely believed that the vessel introduced a new, septic and pneumonic form of the influenza virus to which the population had no immunity; that the use of quarantine regulations could have prevented this; and that, on the instruction of his political superiors, Public Health minister George Warren Russell allowed passengers to disembark. In fact, the Niagara berthed well before the arrival of virulent influenza.

By November there were reports of outbreaks of flu in other parts of New Zealand. But the Department of Health still had not restricted travel around the country, and the infection kept spreading. People came down with the symptoms of the flu very quickly, sometimes collapsing within a matter of hours, and even dying the same day. The only way to avoid catching the virus was by keeping out of contact with other people. There were no flu vaccinations available, and no antibiotics for those who fell ill. Inhalation chambers were set up so that people could breathe in fumes which were supposed to help clear their lungs. This method of prevention was not proved to be effective, and by bringing people together, it may have helped spread the infection.

Between one third and one half of the population of New Zealand was infected with the flu. In some places the death rate was as high as 80% of the town’s population, while in others there were very few deaths. Military camps, where the soldiers were crammed together in their living quarters, had higher death rates than places where living conditions were less cramped.

In all, the official total of deaths from the 1918 influenza epidemic (including New Zealand troops overseas) was 8,573 from a population of 1,150,509. The influenza took a terrible toll on Māori. Over 2,160 died (a death rate of 42.3 per 1000 compared with the European rate of 5.5. per 1000).

This was the world’s worst recorded pandemic of influenza, in just four months killing more than 25 million people, or over twice the number killed in the fighting of the First World War. The other major disease epidemic in history was the Black Death of the fourteenth century, in which an estimated 55 million people died of bubonic plague in the course of four years.

This story was abridged from Christchurch City Libraries. Read the full story at this link:

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