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Government-funded throat sprays were used to curb the spread of the flu, 1918
In the Waipā district it ran riot for just a month, but in those few weeks a deadly influenza epidemic killed dozens of people and caused serious illness for scores of others.
It created havoc in the small towns and sparsely populated rural communities, closing schools and businesses, overwhelming hospitals and almost paralysing all social, sporting and commercial events.
The outbreak was first reported in Te Awamutu’s Waipa Post on 8 November 1918, with a story saying the disease had struck the town and surrounding area.
“In the town and country the epidemic is general, and in some cases whole families have been stricken,” said the report. “Several business places are closed, and the majority are working with reduced staff. In some cases there is serious depletion and great difficulty is being experienced in keeping up with business demands.”
Another story said the Government was urgently asking women “not necessarily registered but who have some nursing experience” to volunteer at the Auckland Hospital. The Government was also advising that the flu was “a dangerous infectious disease”. Authorities were given special powers to control its spread.
A Te Awamutu Council meeting report noted that, in less than a week of the outbreak, “whole families were stricken down helpless and practically unattended. The two doctors were working day and night, but owing to the scattered district were wholly unable to attend all cases.”
A temporary hospital was set up in the Te Awamutu Town Hall with 52 people admitted in 14 days; 24 died, almost all of them adults.
Cambridge fared somewhat better, setting up a hospital in the Cambridge Town Hall to care for 31 patients. A special inhalation chamber was set up in a local mill, and the public was advised to “visit this chamber about every three days”.
School exams were postponed and hotels, bars and club-rooms were ordered closed until further notice.
By 6 December the epidemic appeared to have abated, and the temporary hospitals established in local town halls were evacuated and the buildings, along with schools, were disinfected.
Edited excerpts from the book 'Waipa Home of Champions: Celebrating 150 Years'. Written and produced by historians Richard Stowers and Kingsley Field.