Colds and flu

Updated 11 October 2017

1918 - why the Spanish flu spread so rapidly

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

The war and the migrant labour system also meant that large groups of men regularly travelled long distances, spreading Spanish flu 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.

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.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

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.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules