From the archives: ST's coverage of past pandemics

PHOTOS: ST IMAGE

We've come through this before. The Spanish flu in 1918, Asian flu in 1957 and the 1968 Hong Kong flu cost Singapore more than a thousand lives but also showed its resilience. And ST was there to cover these outbreaks too. Here is a look at some of the articles, forum letters on past pandemics from the ST archives:

July 9, 1918:  THE MYSTERIOUS MALADY

The mysterious malady, which has afflicted Singapore, Hong Kong and other places in the Far East, has been dubbed Trancazo in Manila, where it is still playing pranks with the population. It has affected every business in the city, and a Manila contemporary says it will probably cost the city untold thousands in lost and slackened business, in expense for medical assistance, and in delay. The transports at the docks could not be worked, only a few of the regular men being available and the extra men refusing to work for less than P1.50 per day, an example of how the disease is costing money.

October 26, 1918: Letter to the Editor of the Straits Times

Sir, — All the schools in the Colony are now closed for one week, and the Government is to be congratulated on this wise step taken.

Would it not be more prudent to suspend the schoolwork for a longer period until the epidemic has somewhat abated?

We are surprised, however, that the Cinema halls, theatres and such—like places of entertainment are still permitted to be opened; and we hope that the authorities will look into this matter without any delay.

— Yours, etc., Cosandrew’s, Singapore, October 24, 1918

October 28, 1918: Letter to the Editors of the Straits Times.

Sir,—Would you kindly permit me, through the medium of your valuable paper, to draw the attention of our City Fathers to the present disgraceful condition of the River Valley and Oxley Roads. The dust being allowed to accumulate on them is several inches deep.

Municipal water carts are seen plying daily on these roads; many actually draw water from hydrants, but none would “waste” any water on them, particularly on Oxley Road, which appears to be specially tabooed by the drivers.

At the present moment, when the Spanish “Flu” is making such heavy inroads on the health of our population, the consequences of the air being thickened by the germ—producing dust are so patent that it is not necessary to over—draw the picture.

I trust this little hint will have some effect, and that steps will be taken to have these madly neglected roads watered at an early hour daily, before the death roll from influenza pneumonia increases in these two localities.

I enclose my card and beg to remain.—Yours, etc., A patient sufferer

 
 

May 7, 1957: SINGAPORE FLU SCARE

Worst ever in Colony history

Singapore’s schools may be closed as a result of the influenza pandemic — the worst in the Colony’s history.

The Ministries of Education and Health are urgently assessing the situation.

About 12,000 pupils were absent yesterday from the 160 English primary schools — four times the usual number.

No figures were available for the hundreds of other schools but the Education authorities believe that as many as 25,000 children may be flu victims.

‘Fantastic’

Total enrolment in all Singapore schools is about 250,000.

Adults, too, have been badly hit by the disease. Doctors yesterday reported a “fantastic” increase in patients.

The damp weather has led to the rapid spread of the complaint. 

Victims swamped the General and Kandang Kerbau Hospitals yesterday.

By 9 a.m, more than 3,000 sufferers were queueing at the outpatients department of the General Hospital.

 
 
 
 

A scramble

There was confusion as mothers, weary of hours of waiting, broke the queue and scrambled forward to have their children treated.

Fathers stood on one another’s shoulders to reach the dispensary counter where medicine was being handed out.

Two extra doctors and seven nurses and attendants supplemented the overworked regular staff. Dispensaries were packed from early morning until late afternoon.

The Deputy City Health Officer, Dr. J. Cameron, said the Singapore City Council’s three clinics had treated well over 700 patients during the day — “considerably more than usual.”

“A large proportion of them were quite ill,” he said.

May 15, 1957: 12,000 DOWN WITH THE FLU

Influenza victims in the Federation have soared to 12,000, according to the latest reports received at Federal Medical Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday evening.

Yesterday morning alone there were 6,000 fresh cases.


The Straits Times' front page on May 15, 1957, with its story on the flu pandemic. News coverage of outbreaks across a century gives not only historical context but also an insight into the evolution of local media. PHOTO: ST IMAGE

Johor has the most victims, the toll rising from 3,600 on Monday to 5,800 yesterday. In Selangor the number rose from 1,200 to 3,000. Penang alone had 1,000 fresh cases yesterday.

The Federation’s Assistant Director of Medical Services (Health), Dr. Mohammed Din, declared that the disease, sweeping the length and breadth of the country, was in “truly epidemic proportions.”

Of all States and Settlements, only tiny Perlis remains untouched.

A deterioration might occur in the next few weeks, warned Dr. Din. He said he had directed all medical and health officers to watch the situation “very closely” in their own areas.

Extra shows

In Kuala Lumpur the Municipal Deputy health Officer, D. L. S. Sodhy, said that 950 pupils were absent yesterday out of a total enrolment of 20,000.

He estimated that 400 of these students had flu.

Flouting the official warning, which asked people to avoid crowded places during the epidemic, Colony cinemas yesterday cashed in with extra Vesak Day shows.

Both cinema organisations have withdrawn their newspaper advertisements which earlier stated that all their theatres were being sprayed with an antiseptic solution.

The Minister for Health, Mr. A. J. Braga, commented last week: “It won’t do a bit of good.”

Schools shut

Johor Baru schools and the Government Malay School and a Chinese school at Kota Tinggi have been closed.

The Pontian Government English School has shut down and the Government English School at Kota Tinggi may follow suit today.

In Penang a warning has been given that the island’s school might have to close if the situation deteriorates further.

In Singapore, the Medical Officer in charge of the St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital, Dr. G. Kaye—Smith, said a “few” deaths could be expected as a result of the epidemic but these would indicate nothing when compared with the total number of flu cases in the Colony.

Doctors chary

Altogether about a dozen deaths have been reported in Singapore so far but doctors are chary of attributing them to the flu.

Four Chinese children, all under three years died in St. Andrew’s Hospital last week from pneumonia and diarrhoea developing from suspected influenza.

Three people have died on tiny Pulau Sudong, off Singapore since the epidemic began 10 days ago and the island’s 455 inhabitants are gripped by fear. Three hundred of them are down with fever.

A suspected ‘flu victim, Ong Ai Chiew, the eight-month-old baby girl who died as she was being brought to hospital on Friday night, is now believed to have had meningitis. Thousands of leaflets advising the public on flu preventive measures are being issued in Perak by the medical authorities.

 

August 8, 1968: ASIAN FLU? NO, SAYS CHIEF

Medical authorities in Malaysia have been alerted to keep a watchful eye for any sign of a possible outbreak of Asian flu.

The assistant Director of Medical Services, Dr. S. Appadurai, said this today when asked whether it was possible for the epidemic to spread from Hong Kong to Malaysia where many people were complaining of fever and colds.

“There is no evidence of such an epidemic in this country,”, he said.

He came to this conclusion after carrying out investigations and contacting chief medical and health officers in various States.