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When the spanish flu killed thousands of kenyans

The worst pandemy of history came to Africa in 1918

19-03-2020 by Freddie del Curatolo

We're in Mombasa, late September 1918.
A little more than a month later in Europe, the Austro-Hungarian government collapsed under the blows of the allies and, after the other states of the Balkan bloc had already accepted the armistice, the First World War would be archived.
The Great War, in addition to ten million dead, would leave the trail of a virus that was first identified in 1916 by Spanish researchers, hence the name "Spanish flu", although the first outbreak seems to have been a military camp in France.
Spain is remembered as the most widespread and deadly pandemic in history, infecting a quarter of the world's population (about 500 million people out of 2 billion at that time) and claiming between 20 and 50 million victims worldwide, over at least four years. Curiously, China was the nation least affected by global contagion.
The symptoms were high fever, a wet cough with white sputum, migraine headaches and joint pain. After only eight days, affecting the lungs and respiratory system, it could already be fatal.
Kenya also experienced the Spanish flu painfully.
The then British Empire was fervent in transporting materials by ship from India to Kenya and citizens of the Indian colony.
In Mombasa, in September 1918, word had spread that the passengers and sailors of a ship that had just landed in the country's only major port had sown a new disease that did not have the same symptoms as malaria and yellow fever, of which many people were already dying.
The growing number of casualties, including among their own Indian and Kenyan employees, prompted the British authorities in Nairobi to look into the matter.
When the first graduate of Her Majesty's Army, Captain Grimm, who was temporarily on holiday in Mombasa, was declared dead from sudden pneumonia, several doctors were sent to the coast and became aware of the evidence. It still took some time to define the mysterious illness, but within two months everything was sadly clear.
The Spanish had arrived in Kenya, probably brought by the British themselves and the soldiers of their colonies used during the war.
At the end of 1918, moreover, the first leave of soldiers discharged from their posts took place. Who would return home, who would settle in the newly acquired territories. Many of these soldiers were already infected, and among them were certainly many Kenyans who were part of the "Carrier Corps", a military work organization that enlisted about 400,000 African men to provide frontline support services in the First World War.
The first official correspondence about the death toll for "Spanish" came on November 29 from Malindi, where the population had already been decimated.  The disease had affected both the local population and the settlers and the numbers were beginning to be disturbing, although it was difficult to distinguish them from those for other infectious diseases, given that infant mortality on the coast was already very high and the average age did not exceed 30 years.
Between September and December of the same year about 4600 deaths were recorded in five districts, with 32,000 new cases recorded before the end of 1918. It is assumed, of course, that the figures were already much higher, at least twice as high.
The natives are very secretive about the causes of death or illness of their people," wrote the District Commissioner of Malindi in January 1919, "we believe that the figures are much higher than we can perceive.
With the beginning of the new year, the contagion had spread in the district of Taita-Taveta. About 50 people died every day on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
From the coast, the Spanish spread rapidly to Nairobi.
The only newspaper of the time, the Standard, published an article entitled "Our epidemic", talking about symptoms, possible treatments and isolation in bed as the only remedy against the contagion.
Pharmacies of the time began to produce and advertise quinine and cinnamon tablets, calling the flu "Nairobi Throat Fever".
In November, hospitals in the new capital were overflowing with sick people and the colonial government was frantically looking for volunteer nurses. Among the victims were a very high percentage of Asians, particularly Indians.
In February 2019 the Red Cross had the insane idea of organizing a gala evening to raise funds for the emergency, and this also infected many Europeans, causing 34 excellent deaths. As a result, the South African Union issued a travel ban on passengers from British East Africa.
The pandemic had meanwhile paralysed the institutions. The Colonial Administration was in fact understaffed and struggling, on the coast, with several situations of rebellion over the recent increase in hut and labour taxes.

TAGS: influenza kenyastoria kenya

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