Influenza Epidemic Claimed 466 Cantab Lives – 23rd November 1918

From 23 November 1918 onwards, the Influenza Epidemic that had swept over New Zealand and the world claimed no more lives in Christchurch. Over the months of October and November, 8600 New Zealanders had lost their lives, including 466 Cantabrians.

No agreement has been reached on how the epidemic reached New Zealand shores; one theory is that it was the soldiers from WWI that brought it home. The country’s military camps had the highest fatality rates than that of the cities. Believed to have started in North America in 1917, soldiers spread influenza to Europe and cases were reported as far away as China and Japan. The worldwide death toll by December 1918 was just shy of fifty million.

Influenza seemed to be a choosey killer, striking harder in some cities than others. Christchurch, like the rest of New Zealand, went into almost complete shutdown; businesses, schools were closed, public events cancelled. Due to the country’s health system already being stretched because of the war, many sufferers were nursed at home by their own families and unbelievably, the dead being transferred for burial in the family’s own transport.

Some of Christchurch’s buildings and 14 trams were transformed into medicine depots (the attached photo taken in Cathedral Square), installed with inhalation sprayers, treating the non-sick with zinc sulphate. Even the roads were disinfected.

By December 1918, the epidemic was over.

*Image courtesy of the Canterbury Public Library – http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/ – File Reference CCL Photo CD 2, IMG0050

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