Influenza Epidemic

  October, 1918.

"Please advise Health Department Spanish influenza cases aboard; increasing daily. Present time over 100 crew down. Urgently require hospital assistance and accommodation for 25 serious cases."

This was the message from the R.M.S. Niagara as she approached New Zealand. The term 'Spanish influenza' was carefully chosen by the captain. It distinguished the illness on board as different from the normal flu bug. In many parts of the world at the time a huge epidemic was sweeping whole countries but New Zealand had been free from it so far. 'Spanish grippe' some people called it, though there was no basis for for the name. It seemed to have originated among armies on the Western Front. 

The captain's message was relayed to the Minister of Health. Would he welcome the ship, or would he decide to turn her away. Two questions were asked of the Auckland health authorities:

1. How many deaths had occurred since the ship left Vancouver?

2. Whether the disease was not "pure influenza presenting the same  indications as that which has prevailed in the dominion for some time."

The answers came back. Only one death had occurred since the ship had sailed and the authorities felt that the disease was not, in fact, the dreaded 'Spanish influenza' but 'simple influenza'. Furthermore, only two passengers on board the ship were bound for New Zealand. On the basis of these answers the ship was cleared. 

The Niagara steamed into Auckland on Saturday October 8th, 1918. The 26 most urgent cases on ship were transferred to hospital. 

An outbreak of influenza quickly followed. In the week prior to the docking of Niagara only three deaths from influenza had occurred. In the second week there were six, the third week followed with thirteen, then the fourth week with twenty-one. The first week of November saw seventy-two deaths with the epidemic now spread all over the country and the disease recognised as being worse than any other to have hit the country. 

newspapers listed casualties and one list simply replaced another. Private cars and vans were called up to do ambulance duty. People collapsed in the streets within minutes of the onset of symptoms. Queues formed outside chemist shops.

Immediate burial of bodies was ordered in an effort to halt the spread of the disease but gravediggers and undertakers were unable to keep up. Hospitals were overloaded and halls and schools quickly became makeshift hospitals. Around three hundred of New Zealand's doctors were overseas serving in the war and much of the medical care fell to volunteers. They, in turn, fell ill and paid with their own lives. 

The worst weeks came in November. During the third week 1,442 people died, the next week 1,860 people were lost. December saw a downturn in victims to 1,045 in the first week and 354 in the second. The crisis was almost over.

In the final analysis Auckland had experienced the highest death toll (1,860), followed by Wellington, (1,406). The total lives lost across New Zealand totalled 5,471.

A commission of Inquiry was called and an extensive investigation made. The conclusion was that the patients on the Niagara could not be, by any stretch of the imagination, described as carrying 'pure influenza'. There was strong evidence that the epidemic had been introduced from outside New Zealand, and there was a strong presumption that the source was the Niagara.

Maybe the worst thing of all about this epidemic is that the two passengers wanting to disembark at New Zealand were the Prime Minister of the day, Mr. W.F. Massey, and the Minister of Finance, Sir Joseph Ward. Knowing the chronic situation on the ship these two should have insisted the ship be quarantined, thereby protecting all New Zealander's from infection. 

There still remains doubt as to whether the Commission of Inquiry was accurate in its findings. None of the Niagara's passengers left England later than September 7th, before the fatal second wave of the epidemic had started there. They passed through the United States and Canada between September 12th and 24th -- the epidemic did not begin in those countries until the end of September. 

Worldwide this disease decimated many countries including Australia, Europe, Russia, canada, Africa, South America, China, India and Japan. The estimated number of people struck down by this disease was placed at 720,000,000.