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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Reflecting on the 1918 ‘vaccine’ in Newcastle

A University of Newcastle Associate Professor is shedding light on the inoculation of the Hunter Region in 1919.

Australian history expert Nancy Cushing was initially curious that there was a shot that people took to help control against the 1918 Spanish Flu, despite there being no actual vaccine against the disease, which killed an estimated 50 million worldwide.

With Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp announcing on Friday (29 January) that the region will be one of the first in the nation to receive the vaccine, the issue is at the forefront of many people’s minds.

In 1919, Associate Professor Cushing explained that Newcastle was a “typical” example of the vaccine effort across Australia, with a widespread program of immunisation aimed at the whole population, for example across Melbourne’s railways workshops and throughout Sydney.

As well as the serious public health issue, officials were concerned about the impact the influenza could have on national productivity. 

Newcastle, which was home to the nation’s only integrated steel works, opened in 1915, was an important player in the nation’s economy and its workforce was dominated by men between the ages of 25 and 45 who were the group most likely to die from the disease.

Associate Professor Cushing said that, in Newcastle, there was a concerted effort by public health officials to bring inoculation to the citizenry via clinics at, for example, Hamilton Council Chambers and St Philip’s Hall on Watt Street.

“It struck me, too, that they were holding the clinics for immunisations after work, for example, so that they weren’t just setting it up from 10am until noon on a Monday morning and expecting people to come,” she said.

“They were really taking it to people in their communities, and they took it to people in their work places, as well as immunising kids at school, so they did make a really strong effort to try and get people to be immunised.”

In a similar manner to COVID-19, the Spanish Flu pandemic was nicknamed ‘the masked disease’ due to the obligations for people to don a mask in public settings.

Associate Professor Cushing added there was an early form of a vaccine passport in 1919 as a Justice of the Peace (JP) and a doctor were placed at major stations in NSW, including Newcastle, and people had to swear that they had been inoculated.  

“They were inoculating people at the railway stations and immediately before travel,” she said.

“Obviously, that’s not the way that works, you’re not protected the minute that you’ve had the serum injected into your bloodstream, you have to build up the antibodies in reaction to it.

“They were using access, in this case, to the transport service, as a way to ensure people took the immunisation shot rather than it being a means of immediately protecting fellow travellers.”

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