Friday, August 19, 2011

Flu fight the Kiwis lost

HISTORIC MEMORIAL: Waikumete Cemetery manager Daniel Sales and amateur historian Audrey Lange at a memorial for 1918 flu victims.

Health authorities are working round the clock to ward off a swine flu outbreak. But their counterparts had virtually no time to guard New Zealanders against the Spanish influenza that swept the country in 1918. Many of the casualties are buried at Waikumete Cemetery. Today reporter Stephen Forbes revisits one of the darkest periods in Kiwi history.

The influenza epidemic that struck New Zealand between October and December 1918 still stands as the country’s worst disease outbreak ever.

It claimed 8600 lives – including 1128 in the Auckland region.

Amateur historian Audrey Lange of Glendene started researching the outbreak last year to mark its 90th anniversary.

"I got copies of the burial register from Waikumete Cemetery for the fourth quarter of 1918 and worked from there. It became a massive task – the majority of the information I found was in the old newspapers."

The lethal flu strain is believed to have originated among British and French troops serving on the Western Front. But there is still some debate over how it got to New Zealand.

Early reports suggested it came into the country aboard the RMS Niagara – the Royal Mail liner that docked in Auckland on October 12, 1918.

Twenty-nine of the boat’s crew and several passengers were hospitalised in Auckland.

But Dr Robert Makgill, who wrote an official report on the pandemic for the Health Department in 1919, believed the Niagara was only carrying an ordinary strain of influenza.

Dr Makgill said the ship had left North America well in advance of the second wave of the influenza breaking out.

It was also just one of the many ships that docked in Auckland in October 1918 carrying servicemen returning from Europe.

Deaths associated with the influenza outbreak were recorded within weeks of the Niagara docking.

"One of the reasons it got out of hand was the hospitals were in no condition to cope," Ms Lange says. "They had to open temporary facilities."

Ms Lange scoured cemetery records to find every flu victim buried at Waikumete. She found many were buried in unmarked graves.

Ms Lange says the pandemic peaked between November 13 and 19 when two trains a day carried bodies from Auckland rail station to Waikumete for burial.

Thirty-three extra gravediggers were hired to keep up with the demand.

"On the worst day at the cemetery there was 70 burials. They would start at 8am in the morning and finish at 8pm at night."

Ms Lange says Auckland was a virtual ghost town.

"They closed down everything – the shops, the hotels, the theatres. All the other train services were stopped."

The virus was waning by December 1918. A memorial was erected at Waikumete in September 1988 to remember the dead.

- Western Leader Last updated 05:00 12/05/2009

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