Saturday, 20 June 2015

The ever-present threat of deadly disease

The threat of deadly infectious diseases prompted early twentieth-century governments to take steps to ensure the safety of its citizens. In Queensland, the Health Act 1884 was introduced after an outbreak of typhoid fever and dysentery, and the Health Act 1900 after an outbreak of bubonic plague. 
A child being immunised against Diphtheria, 1920s.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Introduced at a time when public anxiety over health matters was high, the main issues that concerned the general public included the adulteration of food, sanitation problems and frequent outbreaks of epidemic disease.

Most local government authorities employed a health officer who reported on the general health and sanitary state of the city on an annual basis. In Townsville, Dr Walter Nisbet was the city’s Medical Officer of Health from 1898 until his death in 1920.

Dr Nisbet reported on everything from birth and death rates, the prevalence of infectious diseases, population trends, sanitation issues and even on the number of empty houses in the city. He also reported on the state of boarding houses, butcher shops and bakeries, as well as local dairies. Dairymen could be fined if they were found to have watered down their milk and regular checks were made as to the fat content of the milk being supplied to locals.

Epidemics of measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever and dengue fever, among others, came and went with alarming seasonal regularity.

Typhoid fever proved to be a recurring problem for health authorities and one that often carried a high mortality. In his report for the year 1906, Dr Nisbet stated that 49 cases of typhoid fever had occurred in Townsville, with ten deaths - a mortality rate of just over 20 per cent.

Houses in Walker Street, Townsville, 1903. Top photo shows an open drain with a small child standing beside the drain. Bottom photo shows the drain's contents flowing underneath nearby houses.
Both photos: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

In 1915, typhoid fever again reached epidemic proportions in Townsville, with most cases located in North Ward, although there were isolated cases in other parts of the town. In this outbreak, 87 people contracted the disease.

During this outbreak Dr James King-Patrick, Medical Inspector of Health for North Queensland, was interviewed by the Townsville Daily Bulletin about his thoughts on the disease. He had prepared a leaflet with instructions to householders that outlined basic steps to take to avoid potential infection, which centered on many general principles of cleanliness that are taken for granted today.

“The strong point in the instructions to be observed by householders, is that relating to flies,” Dr King-Patrick said.

“People must get it into their heads to look after the sanitary arrangements of their premises, and keep foodstuffs covered,” he said.

“Flies carry filth to food and convey typhoid and other diseases. The fly-road from closet-pan to dinner table is very short.”

In 1918 Dr Nisbet reported that overall, Townsville’s infectious disease record was “fair”, but echoed Dr King-Patrick’s opinion, stating that he felt that the public were not doing enough to protect themselves from possible causes of infection.

Early the following year, the Spanish Influenza pandemic hit Australia and by May, cases were being reported in Townsville. Free inoculation against the disease was offered and 6,000 locals took up the offer.

Dr Nisbet estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 (25 per cent) of Townsville’s population contracted the illness in either a mild or serious form.  Eighteen people died during the outbreak, ten of those in hospital and eight in private homes.

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