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Goodbye war, hello plaque … the hell of Spanish Flu

Contributed by Nichole Overall

This article was first published in Canberra CityNews on 6 February 2019

The patient writhed fitfully in the narrow bed of the primitive if picturesque Queanbeyan District Hospital of 1861 with its two wards and no electricity.

As she retched up a frothy, bloody mucus, long-serving local doctor Patrick Blackall had done all he could. Admitted only five days earlier, 45-year-old Marion Dunlop was displaying symptoms of a respiratory infection, but her condition was deteriorating rapidly.

A fever, rasping cough and a sharp headache, to be expected in the circumstances. So, too, the onset of enervating aches and nausea. More concerning: delirium, black spots blooming on the cheeks and the lips taking on a bruised hue. Indications of literally drowning in her own bodily fluids.

It was January 13, 1919, and the war they said would end at Christmas four years before had reached the climax of its catastrophic throes just two months earlier.

Millions from around the globe were dead and as those left made their way back to landscapes and populations forever scarred, on their heels was a fresh terror that would wreak even greater carnage than all just witnessed.

Marion’s death notice declared she died of double pneumonia. Her family though, still living in the Canberra region, have long held the culprit to be the infamous Spanish Flu that a century ago potentially claimed as many as six times the lives lost to the Great War.

The picturesque Queanbeyan District Hospital… scene of the demise of Marion Dunlop in January, 1919. Was she a victim of Spanish Flu?

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 came to be labelled a “medical holocaust”; a serial killer on an unimagined scale that couldn’t be seen, let alone escaped. It remains the most lethal and mysterious incarnations of the disease ever to plague humankind, just one unusual aspect, its effect on the young and healthy.

One hundred years on, where it came from and when, the level of virulence of this strain, and the full scale of its impact continue to mystify: all seen in the singular instance of a middle-aged woman’s untimely death in a place far removed from the potential “Ground Zero” of the battlefields of Europe.

The beginning of 1918 saw the first of three “waves”, but to the chagrin of the kingdom for which it was named, it is agreed the deathly trajectory didn’t begin in Spain – although between March and May, up to eight million Spaniards contracted it, including their King, Alfonso XIII.

A diabolical plan of the Germans, Chinese labourers carrying it to the continent, or the more preferred Kansas army camp, all have been considered suspects in inflicting it on the world. There’s also a theory it was first seen in a frontline French hospital as early as 1916. Certainly it was the sheer volume of troop movements that resulted in its unprecedented spread.

Like something out of a science-fiction novel or an apocalyptic TV series, in less than a year, from the largest cities to the most remote hamlets, hundreds of millions were infected and tens of millions died, often very quickly and quite painfully: “One of the most striking of the complications was haemorrhage from mucous membranes, especially from the nose, stomach, and intestine. Bleeding from the ears and… haemorrhages in the skin also occurred.”

However, one of the most touted inaccuracies is the 50 million victims of the pandemic (it can vary from 20 million to as high as 100 million). In Australia, it’s generally stated between 12,000 and 15,000 succumbed. The actual number worldwide can never be known with certainty, and for a variety of reasons, including its murky origins.

In the early stages, the disease was also both regularly misdiagnosed – everything from cholera to typhoid – or dismissed as the normal seasonal flu.

Along with not initially being compulsory to report or record instances of its appearance, censorship also played its part. With the already deadly state of global affairs, much information was suppressed so as not to impede the war effort or negatively affect morale. Accordingly, the severity remained unacknowledged or unknown in many afflicted areas until undertakers literally began to run out of coffins.

By October, 1918, the most severe stage of the outbreak, Australia had quarantined itself. Its first “detected” case was reported just three days before Marion’s death – a soldier in Melbourne. Nonetheless, there were opportunities for it to have arrived in the antipodes earlier, particularly with returning wounded servicemen.

As late as March, 1919, “The Queanbeyan Age” was still questioning the exact nature of the situation and how to deal with it: “This obvious danger seems to have been entirely lost sight of through hysterical dread of a hypothetical ‘germ’ which may exist or not exist, but which, if it did exist, would have every opportunity of making its way through the [protective] masks.”

Perhaps the most compelling evidence in support of the idea its insidious reach was far beyond that recognised: 2005 research revealed that many didn’t die of the flu itself, rather, from secondary complications for which the virus paved the way. Namely, pneumonia.

Canadian Lt-Col John McCrae MD wrote one of the most recognisable poems of World War I, “In Flanders Fields”. On January 28, 1918, he died in France – not combat, but pneumonia. Today, virologists say this most certainly was a result of the Spanish Flu.

Given all of these factors, along with many still unanswered questions, could Marion, daughter of John and Jane Dunlop, of Bungendore, have indeed fallen victim to the “plague of the Spanish Lady” before the Australian experience became clear? If so, how many others may have suffered a similarly undocumented fate?

For more on the regional and wider aspects of this mystery plague, see http://anoverallview.wixsite.com/blog