Defin­ing mo­ments

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

“AUS­TRALIA MUST now face the fact that the scourge which has taken so heavy a toll from the rest of the world has in­vaded her own fron­tiers,” re­ported The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald on 28 Jan­uary 1919.

Flu pan­demics (epi­demics of world­wide pro­por­tion) have reached our shores – in the 1890s, in 1957, 1968 and 2009 – but none has been as dev­as­tat­ing as that of 1918–19.

That event, called the Span­ish flu be­cause it was first widely re­ported from Spain, be­gan dur­ing the last year of World War I and passed through sol­diers in Western Eu­rope in ever more de­struc­tive waves.This ver­sion of the flu af­fected healthy young adults more than the usual tar­gets of chil­dren, the el­derly and peo­ple with a weak­ened im­mune sys­tem. In Aus­tralia, the virus be­came known as pneu­monic in­fluenza, be­cause of its ef­fect on the lungs.

It spread rapidly world­wide as sol­diers re­turned from ac­tive ser­vice at the war’s end. Be­cause of its re­mote­ness from Eu­rope, Aus­tralia had months to pre­pare.The first line of de­fence was to try to keep the virus from reach­ing main­land Aus­tralia.The Aus­tralian Quar­an­tine Ser­vice im­ple­mented mar­itime mea­sures on 17 Oc­to­ber 1918 af­ter learn­ing of out­breaks in New Zealand and South Africa.The next day the first in­fected ship to en­ter Aus­tralian wa­ters, the Mataram from Sin­ga­pore, ar­rived in Dar­win. Dur­ing the fol­low­ing six months our quar­an­tine ser­vice in­ter­cepted 174 ves­sels car­ry­ing the in­fec­tion. Of 81,510 peo­ple checked, 1102 were in­fected.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s sec­ond line of de­fence was to set con­sis­tent re­sponses for han­dling and con­tain­ing out­breaks. It was agreed the fed­eral gov­ern­ment be re­spon­si­ble for pro­claim­ing which states were in­fected and or­gan­is­ing quar­an­tine.The states would ar­range emer­gency hos­pi­tals, vac­ci­na­tion de­pots, am­bu­lance ser­vices, med­i­cal staff and pub­lic aware­ness.

Mel­bourne’s Com­mon­wealth Serum Lab­o­ra­to­ries (CSL) de­vel­oped its first ex­per­i­men­tal vac­cine in 1918 in an­tic­i­pa­tion of pneu­monic in­fluenza reach­ing main­land Aus­tralia. Re­searchers didn’t know what caused in­fluenza, but the vac­cine ad­dressed po­ten­tially fa­tal se­condary bac­te­rial in­fec­tions. From 15 Oc­to­ber 1918 to 15 March 1919, CSL pro­duced 3 mil­lion free doses. It later eval­u­ated the vac­cine as par­tially ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing death.

Mar­itime quar­an­tine con­tained the virus un­til its vir­u­lence less­ened, and re­stricted the in­tro­duc­tion of the dis­ease into Aus­tralia to a sin­gle en­try point.The first con­firmed case ap­peared in Mel­bourne on 9 or 10 Jan­uary 1919. Early cases were so mild there was ini­tial con­fu­sion about whether they were Span­ish flu or sim­ply sea­sonal flu virus from the pre­vi­ous win­ter.

This un­cer­tainty de­layed con­fir­ma­tion of an out­break, al­low­ing it to spread to New South Wales and South Aus­tralia. NSW was the first state to pro­claim an out­break, on 27 Jan­uary 1919. Vic­to­ria fol­low­ing suit the next day.

The in­fluenza ex­pe­ri­ence var­ied be­tween lo­ca­tions. Syd­ney im­ple­mented strict mea­sures in­clud­ing school clo­sures and manda­tory mask use, which slowed but didn’t stop the dis­ease’s spread. Syd­ney ul­ti­mately ex­pe­ri­enced three waves of out­break, with many deaths. In Perth, the city’s iso­la­tion and state bor­der quar­an­tine con­trol en­sured pneu­monic in­fluenza didn’t ap­pear there un­til June 1919. A spike in in­fec­tions was recorded af­ter crowds gath­ered to cel­e­brate

Peace Day on 19 July 1919. By that year’s end, the pan­demic was over.

Glob­ally, more peo­ple died from the in­fluenza pan­demic (50–100 mil­lion) than dur­ing WWI (18 mil­lion). In Aus­tralia, the es­ti­mated death toll of 15,000 was high but far less than the coun­try’s WWI death toll of 62,000.

In fact, Aus­tralia’s over­all flu death rate of 2.7 per 1000 of pop­u­la­tion was one of the low­est recorded of any coun­try dur­ing the pan­demic. Nev­er­the­less, up to 40 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion was in­fected, and some Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties recorded a mor­tal­ity rate of 50 per cent.

Sur­gi­cal masks were worn in an at­tempt to pre­vent the spread of in­fluenza, seen here in Bris­bane in 1919.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.