Kōrero: Epidemics

Whārangi 3. The influenza era, 1890s to 1920s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The period 1890s–1920s was dominated by two influenza pandemics (1890–94 and 1918), with annual epidemics in between.

Plague made its first and only New Zealand appearance in 1900, but it caused only a handful of deaths and disappeared after 1911. There were outbreaks of measles and whooping cough (pertussis) in 1907, and diphtheria in 1917.

Improvements in disease identification

With the advent of bacteriology (the study of bacteria in relation to disease) in the late 19th century, identification of many diseases became more precise. New Zealand’s adoption of the Bertillon index (a list of known diseases) in 1909 reflected this.

However, statistics remained unreliable in this era, especially because Māori deaths did not have to be registered with the government until the early 20th century, and even in 1918 hundreds of Māori deaths from influenza were not registered. Statistics for Māori births, deaths and marriages remained incomplete until the 1940s.

Laboratory techniques for identifying diseases and their effects on the human body have since been vastly improved, which makes modern statistics for epidemics more reliable.

1913 Northland smallpox epidemic

Smallpox, a highly infectious viral disease, was a major killer worldwide before the discovery of effective vaccination in the late 18th century. Mass immunisation campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries eventually eradicated smallpox – it now exists only in laboratores.

Small pox, big effect 

Smallpox was at first hard to distinguish from chickenpox, but it was much more dangerous. As the disease developed, two types of case could be fatal: when the spots bled and became septic, or if the rash extended into the air-passages, blocking the windpipe. Many survivors were forever marked by scars.

The most significant outbreak occurred in 1913 in Northland. It was traced to a Mormon missionary who had caught smallpox on a ship sailing to New Zealand from Canada. After he attended a hui in Northland in April 1913, the disease spread rapidly. Most of the two thousand reported cases were Māori, as were all of the 55 people who died.

A mass vaccination programme was set up and travel restrictions were imposed to slow the spread of infection. Newspapers made much of the outbreak, blaming the epidemic on lack of sanitation and poor living conditions among Māori – yet Māori were more willing to receive vaccinations than many Pākehā.

The epidemic was declared over by December 1913, although the last case was not notified until April 1914.

1918 influenza pandemic

New Zealand’s worst disease disaster to date is the influenza pandemic of November 1918, which killed more than 50 million people worldwide, and 9,000 in New Zealand. No other recorded influenza pandemic has been so deadly – and nobody knows why it was so lethal.

It occurred in the wake of the First World War, when the movement of large numbers of troops by sea and rail greatly facilitated the spread of infection. Troops returning to New Zealand brought the virus from Europe. It reached epidemic proportions in late October, peaked in late November and was nearly over by early December.

Many people believed that the killer virus was brought to New Zealand by the passenger ship Niagara, which docked in Auckland on 12 October 1918 full of influenza sufferers. Prime Minister William Massey and Finance Minister Sir Joseph Ward were on board. Critics later argued that they arranged for the ship to avoid quarantine, but this was not the case, and the Niagara was later conclusively ruled out as the source of infection.

Perils of being the breadwinner 

It has been suggested that far more men than women died during the 1918 influenza pandemic because men were typically the family breadwinners, so had to go to work instead of staying home when sick. Dairy farmers were at greater risk of collapsing or relapsing than more sedentary professions, because they had to milk their cows twice every day.

Symptoms exhibited by sufferers included chills, fever, runny nose, sore throat, coughs, headache and muscular pain. The real killer in 1918 was pneumonia – a secondary infection. The skin of some people who caught pneumonia darkened because of burst blood vessels. If the whole body became virtually black, death was often imminent. Later in life, sufferer Grace Stewart described her experience: ‘I was in bed for six weeks. My fingers and fingernails went black. My tongue was covered with some sort of fungus half an inch thick … The pain in the whole of my body was terrible.’1

Unlike in other countries, where male and female deaths were about equal, New Zealand death rates for males were double those for females in the worst-affected age groups. The Māori death rate was more than eight times that for Pākehā. The highest regional death rates for Pākehā were in Southland, King Country, Wellington and Auckland. Auckland city had the largest Pākehā death toll at 1,128 (7.6 per 1,000). The national figure was about 5.5 per 1,000. Nationwide, 135 Pākehā children lost both parents and 6,415 lost one.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Geoffrey W. Rice, Black November: the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand. 2nd edition. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2005, p. 86. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Geoff Rice, 'Epidemics - The influenza era, 1890s to 1920s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/epidemics/page-3 (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Geoff Rice, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 8 Feb 2024