The Fiji Times
The Spanish flu of 1918
500 million infected, 50 million dead
JUST as World War I ended, another global battle erupted, killing millions of people in its trail. It was the Spanish flu, a deadly influenza pandemic that hit countries throughout the world from January 1918 to December 1920.
It infected about 500 million people, one third of the world’s population at the time and killed about 50 million people worldwide, making the disease one of the most deadly pandemics in human history.
Back then, newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in Spain. These stories created the false impression that Spain was devastated by the flu and gave rise to the pandemic’s nickname, the “Spanish Flu”.
Prior to the Spanish flu, influenza outbreaks proved fatal to both the very young and the very old. However, the pandemic resulted in higher than expected deaths rate among young people.
Historians have not come to a conclusion of the flu’s origin. The common belief is that it either started in Canada, China, the US or the UK.
Scientists believe there are several reasons why there was a high death rate during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Some analyses have shown the virus triggered a cytokine storm, which ravaged the stronger immune system of young adults.
From the western world, the Spanish flu moved to the Pacific in the latter part of 1918.
The Fiji Times of November 18, 1918 reported that when the pandemic first broke out in the country, six locals who contracted it died at the Colonial Hospital.
Seven Fijians on board the ship SS Atua in Sydney died as well.
On November, as the flu outbreak worsened, schools started to close. By December 2, 1918, temporary hospitals were created, with 60 patients admitted at the Boys’ Grammar School in Suva.
On December 3, 1918, The Fiji Times reported that 26 people had died. “Pretty bad” was the reply from a Levuka resident when this paper made enquiries. Ovalau had an estimated 200 to 300 infected people on the island.
A central kitchen was set up at the Suva Town Hall where soup, sago and barley water was served.
There were about 1000 cases in Navua, out of which, 20 were reported dead.
As the pandemic raged in Fiji, an estimated 90 per cent of the labour force was affected and sugar mills shut down.
According to a Secretariat of the Pacific Community literature, Fiji lost around 9000 lives, five per cent of the island’s then population.
It is said, in 1918, children around the world skipped to the rhyme “I had a little bird. Its name was Enza. I opened the window. And in-flu-enza”.
In the Pacific, the deadly virus was believed to have been carried into a number of countries of the region on board the SS Talune, which anchored in Apia in November 7, 1918.
Less than two months after the arrival of the ship more than 7542 people were dead, about 25 per cent of the entire population of Samoa.
The SS Talune had anchored in Auckland in preparation for the voyage to the Pacific.
Two weeks before its departure, it was joined in Auckland by a ship from Vancouver that carried a large number of passengers and crew horribly sick with flu.
Some of the ill died on board during the journey. Those surviving were admitted at Auckland Hospital while some remained isolated on board.
Two weeks later, the SS Talune called at ports in Samoa, Fiji and later Tonga and Nauru, carrying goods as well as flu-stricken people on board. As a result, it left a wake of death and destruction in the countries that it called on.
An online health article found in Aljazeera.com noted Fiji’s medical authorities thought the flu was