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​Lest we forget…

June 11, 2019

Lest we forget…

Just over 100 years ago 21 families got the devastating news that their brave young sons, who courageously signed up to war in Europe, had died whilst based at the Narrow Neck Military Camp. Their post war deaths were not from war injuries but from influenza. The Camp was hit hard and in October 1918, 226 young and fit men went down with flu. Of the 21 who died, 10 were Maori, 4 Pakeha and the rest were Pacifica. Today 20 of their graves at O'Neill's Point Cemetery, in Bayswater, are a poignant reminder of the heart break and sorrow that their Whanau suffered.

The so called "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918 affected 500 million people across the globe and killed somewhere between 40 and 70 million, more deaths than during the Great War. New Zealand lost almost 17000 lives in the four years of World War 1, but in just 2 months the Spanish flu killed 8600 New Zealanders.

In the European summer of 1918, the virus spread among military units who lived in cramped quarters, having probably started in the US. As the war ended, surviving solders returned home –taking influenza with them.

After four gruelling years of conflict, the immediate post-war period was a time for celebration. Public gatherings presented an ideal opportunity for infectious diseases to find new victims. This most likely prolonged the second wave of the outbreak.

A third wave in the early spring of 1919 took war-weary populations by surprise, claiming millions more lives. Just as with seasonal influenza, the worst-hit populations were the very old and the very young. However, in comparison to a typical flu epidemic, there was a major spike in the 25-34 age group. Many soldiers who survived the trenches, did not survive the flu. Some returning soldiers shared the lethal virus with their spouses, also helping to push up the fatality rate in young adults

There are several other reasons why the proportion of deaths among young adults was higher than normal. For one thing, the older population had partial immunity from the 1889-1890 flu pandemic (known as Russian flu).The virus has also been shown to have triggered what is known as a 'cytokine storm' – an immune response that can be particularly severe in those with stronger immune systems. Just like today, those most at risk were pregnant women. Of the pregnant women who survived, over one quarter were estimated to have lost their baby.

If only there had been a vaccine then……

We have a vaccine now that is 60% effective in preventing a lethal disease and yet even though it is free to many groups, it is not taken up nearly widely enough. Last week in New Zealand it made headlines that 2 people had died of seasonal influenza – one of them just a child. In fact, there are probably 500 deaths a year from influenza in New Zealand – more deaths than our ridiculously high road toll.