Worse than Covid: the effects of past epidemics are still being felt


OPINION: If you think we are being messed around with all of the Covid restrictions, talk to your parents and grandparents, if you’re lucky enough to still have them around.

In terms of the number of cases and deaths, Covid is just a beginner.

Of course, a lot can be done from the brilliant efforts to produce effective vaccines in a surprisingly short time frame, but the numbers from previous epidemics make us realize how lucky we are.

No, we’re not talking about the Black Death here – horrible as it is. We are talking about two recent pandemics – the “Spanish” flu and polio, or polio for short.

To date, we have had 28 deaths from Covid-19 in New Zealand, although more are undoubtedly on the way. The Spanish flu in 1918-19 killed 9,000 New Zealanders in just two months, about half of the total number of World War I casualties over four years.

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Polio killed 173 people in just one year and returned at intervals of about 10 years to kill 30 to 50 more in each outbreak.

Globally, the Spanish flu has killed 50 million people and infected around 500 million. Polio received the earlier name infantile paralysis because young children seemed particularly susceptible. However, adults could also contract it and with them the consequences were likely to be more severe.

The name “Spanish flu” was particularly unfair to Spain. It first erupted among the military in France at the end of the war and for propaganda purposes was given this name when the King of Spain fell ill.

In November and December 1918, thousands of New Zealanders were infected. The flu epidemics started in Auckland and spread south to Waikato and then Taranaki – just as Covid is doing today.

Also, as with the Covid, the Maori have been shown to be particularly sensitive with around 2,500 of them among the dead. There was no practical vaccine, so the disease was fought with basic tactics that are still used against Covid today – isolation, quarantine, disinfectants and personal hygiene.

Many towns were organized in blocks, each with its own commander, and workers went door to door to locate the sick.

Large gatherings have been banned, businesses have been closed, and medical staff have been pushed to their limits. The same techniques were used later to fight polio.

New Zealand ships visiting the Pacific Islands took the flu with them to wreak havoc and many deaths.

Suddenly the flu was gone, although researchers had worked for many years to find the source – believed to be avian in nature, which echoed the ‘bird flu’ of more recent years.

Polio is a disease that has been forgotten, Dykes says, and so are the sick.

David Unwin / Tips

Polio is a disease that has been forgotten, Dykes says, and so are the sick.

Polio is a different case and is believed to have been around for thousands of years. There is even an ancient Egyptian depiction of a man with a withered leg using a stick to help him walk.

Many people believe that a cure was found in the 1950s and 1960s, but this is not true. The vaccines developed prevent a person from contracting polio, but do not cure it. As late as the 1940s and 1950s, the cause of polio was unknown and almost medieval tactics were used to combat it.

Patients were tied up and tied down to prevent them from moving. For some, the only way to breathe was to be placed in a mechanical device called an “iron lung” which helped them breathe.

Today polio still exists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, and in recent years a small outbreak has occurred in New Guinea. The last ‘wild’ case in New Zealand dates back to 1977, but it is estimated that there may still be as many as 10,000 New Zealanders struggling with the late effects of polio.

These may not manifest for decades after the initial attack and cause a variety of symptoms, including muscle weakness, loss of focus, fatigue, pain, and depression.

In many cases, people with LeoP or PPS (Post Polio Syndrome) do not have obvious physical disabilities. What is particularly frustrating for them is that many “modern” doctors have received little training on polio and believe it is cured. Post-polio effects are often attributed to “old age”.

Have a thought for the polio patients surviving amid the fury of Covid and raise their glasses on October 24, World Polio Day.

Yeah, they were tough, our parents and grandparents.

Mervyn Dykes is an author and former journalist based in Manawatū.

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