Tag Archives: flu

Fleas to flu to coronavirus: how ‘death ships’ spread disease through the ages



Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

Joy Damousi, Australian Catholic University

One of the haunting images of this pandemic will be stationary cruise ships – deadly carriers of COVID-19 – at anchor in harbours and unwanted. Docked in ports and feared.

The news of the dramatic spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess from early February made the news real for many Australians who’d enjoyed holidays on the seas. Quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, over 700 of the ship’s crew and passengers became infected. To date, 14 deaths have been recorded.

The Diamond Princess’s sister ship, the Ruby Princess, brought the pandemic to Australian shores. Now under criminal investigation, the events of the Ruby Princess forced a spotlight on the petri dish cruise ships can become. The ship has been linked to 21 deaths.

History shows the devastating role ships can play in transmitting viruses across vast continents and over many centuries.




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Rats in the ranks

Merchant ships carrying rats with infected fleas were transmitters of the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) that devastated the Byzantine Empire.

Ships carrying grain from Egypt were home to flea-infested rats that fed off the granaries. Contantinople was especially inflicted, with estimates as high as 5,000 casualties a day. Globally, up to 50 million people are estimated to have been killed – half the world’s population.

The Black Death was also carried by rats on merchant ships through the trade routes of Europe. It struck Europe in 1347, when 12 ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death.
Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently called “death ships”, those on board were either dead or sick. Soon, the Black Death spread to ports around the world, such as Marseilles, Rome and Florence, and by 1348 had reached London with devastating impact.

The Italian writer, poet and scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote how terror swept through Florence with relatives deserting infected family members. Almost inconceivably, he wrote, “fathers and mothers refused to nurse their own children, as though they did not belong to them”.

Ships started being turned away from European ports in 1347. Venice was the first city to close, with those permitted to enter forced into a 40-day quarantine: the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.

By January 1349, mass graves proliferated outside of London to bury the increasing numbers of dead.




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Army and naval ships, as well as travellers around the globe, also carried cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century. In the first pandemic in 1817, British army and navy ships are believed to have spread cholera beyond India where the outbreaks originated.

Egyptians boarding boats on the Nile during a cholera epidemic, drawn by CL Auguste (1841-1905.)
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

By the 1820s, cholera had spread throughout Asia, reaching Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan through shipping. British troops spread it to the Persian Gulf, eventually moving through Turkey and Syria.

Subsequent outbreaks from the 1820s through to the 1860s relied on trade and troops to spread the disease across continents.

At war with the Spanish Flu

The Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers.

One New Zealand rifleman wrote in his diary in September 1918:

More deaths and burials total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat.

The SS Port Darwin returned from Europe, docked at Portsea, Victoria. Soldiers are waiting to pass through a fumigation chamber to protect Australia against the Spanish Flu.
Australian War Memorial

The flu was transmitted throughout Europe in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Three-quarters of French troops and over half of British troops fell ill in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers travelling on troop ships across the Atlantic and back provided the perfect conditions for transmission.

The fate of cruising

A new and lethal carrier in the 21st century has emerged in the pleasure industry of cruise ships. The explosion of cruise holidays in the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of luxury liners plying the seas.

Like historical pandemics, the current crisis shares the characteristic of rapid spread through ships.

The unknown is in what form cruise ships will continue to operate. Unlike the port-to-port trade and armed forces that carried viruses across continents centuries ago, the services cruise lines offer are non-essential.

Whatever happens, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us “death ships” are an enduring feature of the history of pandemics.The Conversation

Joy Damousi, Director, Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


100 years later, why don’t we commemorate the victims and heroes of ‘Spanish flu’?


File 20190118 100292 x8l4i8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Women were at the forefront of managing the influenza pandemic.
AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL

Peter Hobbins, University of Sydney

At Sydney’s enormous Rookwood Cemetery, a lichen-spotted headstone captures a family’s double burden of grief.

The grave contains the remains of 19-year-old Harriet Ann Ottaway, who died on 2 July 1919. Its monument also commemorates her brother Henry James Ottaway, who “died of wounds in Belgium, 23rd Sept 1917, aged 21 years”.

While Henry was killed at the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, Harriet’s headstone makes no mention of her own courageous combat with “Spanish flu”.

Harriet’s story typifies the enduring public silence around the pneumonic influenza pandemic of 1918–19. Worldwide, it killed an estimated 50-100 million people – at least three times all of the deaths caused by the First World War.




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Why historians ignored the Spanish flu


After the disease came ashore in January 1919, about a third of all Australians were infected and the flu left nearly 15,000 dead in under a year. Those figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18.

Arguably, we could consider 1919 as another year of war, albeit against a new enemy. Indeed, the typical victims had similar profiles: fit, young adults aged 20-40. The major difference was that in 1919, women like Harriet formed a significant proportion of the casualties.




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Deadly flu spread rapidly

There was no doubt about the medical and social impact of the “Spanish flu”. Although its origins remain contested, it certainly didn’t arise in Spain. What is known is that by early 1918, a highly infectious respiratory disease, caused by a then-unknown agent, was moving rapidly across Europe and the United States. By the middle of that year, as the war was reaching a tipping point, it had spread to Africa, India and Asia.

About a third of the entire world’s population was infected with Spanish flu.
Macleay Museum, Author provided

It also took on a much deadlier profile. While victims initially suffered the typical signs and symptoms of influenza – including aches, fever, coughing and an overwhelming weariness – a frighteningly high proportion went rapidly downhill.

Patients’ lungs filled with fluid – which is why it became known as “pneumonic influenza” – and they struggled to breathe. For nurses and doctors, a tell-tale sign of impending death was a blue, plum or mahogany colour in the victim’s cheeks.

This, sadly, was the fate of young Harriet Ottaway. Having nursed a dying aunt through early 1919, in June she tended her married sister Lillian, who had come down with pneumonic influenza.

Despite taking the recommended precautions, Harriet contracted the infection and died in hospital. Ironically, Lillian survived. But in the space of less than two years she had lost both a brother to the Great War and her younger sister to the Spanish flu.

An intimate impact worldwide

Indeed, as Harriet’s headstone reminds us, this was an intimate pandemic. The statistics can seem overwhelming until you realise what it means that about a third of the entire world’s population was infected.

Whatever your heritage, your ancestors and their communities were almost certainly touched by the disease. It’s a part of all of our family histories and many local histories.




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It wasn’t just victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back the flu for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919.

But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

Leaflets like this one from Victoria tried to warn people of the dangers of Spanish flu.
Board of Public Health, Victoria/Public Records Office of Victoria

Responses within Australia varied from state to state but the crisis often led to the closure of schools, churches, theatres, pubs, race meetings and agricultural shows, plus the delay of victory celebrations.

The result was not only economic hardship, but significant interruptions in education, entertainment, travel, shopping and worship. The funeral business boomed, however, as the nation’s annual death rate went up by approximately 25%.

Yet for some reason, the silence of Harriet’s headstone is repeated across the country. Compared with the Anzac memorials that peppered our towns and suburbs in the decades after the Great War, few monuments mark the impact of pneumonic influenza.

Nevertheless, its stories of suffering and sacrifice have been perpetuated in other ways, especially within family and community memories. A century later, these stories deserve to be researched and commemorated.




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Despite the disruption, fear and substantial personal risk posed by the flu, tens of thousands of ordinary Australians rose to the challenge. The wartime spirit of volunteering and community service saw church groups, civic leaders, council workers, teachers, nurses and organisations such as the Red Cross step up.

They staffed relief depots and emergency hospitals, delivered comforts from pyjamas to soup, and cared for victims who were critically ill or convalescent. A substantial proportion of these courageous carers were women, at a time when many were being commanded to hand back their wartime jobs to returning servicemen.

In resurrecting stories such as the sad tale of Harriet Ottaway, it’s time to restore our memories of the “Spanish flu” and commemorate how our community came together to battle this unprecedented public crisis.The Conversation

Peter Hobbins, ARC DECRA Fellow, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


1918 Flu Pandemic



1918 Flu Pandemic



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