Colds and flu

Updated 08 May 2009

1918 - why the flu spread so rapidly

South Africa's many ports and harbours rendered it vulnerable to infections passed on by sailors.

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South Africa's many ports and harbours rendered it vulnerable to infections passed on by sailors. The war and the migrant labour system also meant that large groups of men regularly travelled long distances, spreading infections throughout the country by doing so.

South Africa boasted a well-developed railway system in 1918 covering 10 000 miles, and this enabled the flu to spread rapidly to remote rural areas. Many railway workers indeed succumbed to the flu, and many of those who did not were seconded to do relief work, assisting medical staff, distributing medical supplies and running soup kitchens.

Furthermore, South Africa also has a large indigenous population living under poor conditions. These people also had very little access to medical facilities or knowledge.

Map: the spread of the 1918 flu in SA

Map: the spread of the 1918 flu

Sources for the whole section on the 1918 epidemic in South Africa: SA Railways and Harbour Magazine, December 1918; Phillips, Howard. South Africa's worst Demographic Disaster: The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918. (South African Historical Journal, (20), 1988.

 

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Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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