Since 1900 Cairns has had at least three serial epidemics.

1st) the Plague of 1900

2nd) 1919 – the returning of troops from the European theatre of war

3rd) was Malaria during World War II in the Pacific

The coming to our shores of infectious disease required the fledgling Health authorities to organise. The Federal and Queensland state authorities had to put in place quarantined measures and try to inhibiting the cause.

Bubonic Plague during 1900

Centralisation of public health had already begun in the late nineteenth century, but the catalyst for accelerating the process was the emergence of bubonic plague in 1900, at which stage, it was well understood that plague was spread by rats & their fleas, from visiting vessels. In North Queensland between 1900 and 1908 there were 102 patients who suffered from plague, of which half died. In all Australia 1,212 cases occurred, of these 463 died. After 1909 the epidemic completely disappeared. In Brisbane, 464 cases were reported between 1900 and 1907, of whom 195 died. In May 1900 the Morning Post acknowledged that while:
Cairns may have no drainage system, it certainly does swarm with rats, … until the past week or two, …. But ‘heart of grace’ may be taken from the fact that Cairns is not a closely-built settlement.
In 2020, this is no longer the case!

During the initial outbreak, government health representative, Dr Alfred Turner toured North Queensland evaluating procedures taken to combat the spread of plague and was appalled by the attitude of medicos, government authorities and the public. Dr Turner arrived at the Cairns General Hospital to find it had been sealed and padlocked. Turner was irate, particularly as there were no alternative arrangements for patients. He countermanded Dr. Koch’s orders and had the hospital disinfected and re-opened.
Dr Turner found that the “municipality of Cairns did more in three days I was there than the municipality of Townsville has effected in three weeks.” It was reported in 1904 that in Cairns, some 360 loads of filth were removed, while in Townsville the figure was 2,000.

The Pandemic Flu of 1919

‘Spanish Influenza’ is a misnomer, as it is likely that the H1N1 subtype that caused the pandemic originated in the USA. The pandemic occurred in three waves, the first two waves in the Northern hemisphere in the spring and autumn of 1918 and the third, which affected Australia, in the first months of 1919.

On 9 May 1919, a seamen’s strike ground all shipping around Australia to a halt. In Cairns, there was no steamers running on the coast at all. There was a shortage of flour all over North Queensland. Three hundred and sixty tons of emergency foodstuffs eventually arrived on SS Chilligoe (31 July 1919), and a further supply by the big steamer Kent, organised by Burns Philp & Co. direct from Melbourne, but the district had run out of beer a week before and tobacco was getting very hard to obtain. However, after 14 weeks, the strike was settled. It had seriously affected the economic climate of the district. Similarly, it had hindered the return of servicemen to their homes upon their arrival back in Australia. However, in hindsight this may have been advantageous in containing the spread of the influenza pandemic that was rapidly infecting troops in the European theatre of war in mid-to late-1918, and made its way to Australia in the first months of 1919 with the returning soldiers.

Despite the introduction of quarantine measures to prevent ships bringing the influenza pandemic to Australia, the first cases were notified in Victoria in January 1919, shortly followed by NSW. Within six months the death toll had reached 2,600. By the end of the year 11,500 people had died of influenza in Australia, of whom 60% were aged between 20 and 45 years. The first cases in Cairns were reported to the State Health Officer on Friday 6 June 1919, when six people were admitted to the Cairns District Hospital. Over the following weekend another ten cases (including 3 nurses) were reported and public gatherings were prohibited. A month later there were 27 cases in hospital and 20 cases in their own home, and another 20 fresh cases of a mild nature identified. On the following day, there were 44 fresh cases. The impact of these health workers’ illnesses, may be gauged by the fact there were only five doctors practicing in Cairns in 1920. Volunteers were called for, and many local women answered the call. Throughout July and August a total of 929 people were recorded as having contracted the disease, and 10 dying from it.

To the Indigenous population of the district, the pandemic was devastating. The 1919 influenza took a heavy toll of the Madjanydji Blacks on Babinda Creek; many were buried in unmarked graves; later, others were sent to Palm Island. At Yarrabah there were 250 patients (with one death), during September there had officially been 6 Aboriginal deaths from influenza; however, oral history suggests that the impact was far more drastic.

Malaria in FNQ during the Pacific War (1940-1946)

Evacuees from Papua and New Guinea enlarged the pool of malaria patients and carriers in Cairns with the result that the city became highly malarious. Along with an increase in Dengue Fever a major health problem was developing. As a result there was a Dengue Fever epidemic in 1941 which continued for three years doubtless due to the steady injection of non-immunes into the susceptible population with the movement of Australian and American troops.

In March 1942 an outbreak of benign tertian malaria had begun in Cairns, and had reached epidemic proportions by the end of June when some 700 cases were reported among troops and civilians. Dr. Heydon, an entomologists led the vanguard on ridding Malaria from Cairns and Pupua New Guinea by dissected more than 2,000 anopheline mosquitoes and was responsible for “incriminating the vector of malaria during the Cairns epidemic of 1942”. The control of the epidemic was nevertheless, “a joint effort by Army entomologists and malaria control units, the Queensland Health department, the Commonwealth Health Laboratory, civilian medical practitioners, the Cairns District Hospital, the Cairns Post, the local Council, and the citizens themselves.”

An extensive distribution survey of the carrier species of mosquito was implemented and this defined their southernmost limit at Ingham, and that the vector was absent from the higher altitudes of the Tableland. A general policy began of sending all service patients and returning troops from New Guinea (who had contracted malaria) to the Atherton Tableland.

On the frontline, malaria was destroying the effective strength of troops in New Guinea (for both the Japanese and the Allies) and posed a most critical threat. The ratio of medical to battle casualties in 1942 for the Australian Papuan campaign was almost 8:1. It was readily apparent that whoever won the battle over fevers and malaria had a distinct advantage in winning the war. Nearly 45% of Australian troops in Port Moresby were infected with malaria. Medical concern proved to be well founded when a serious malarial epidemic almost immobilised the Milne Bay force in November and December 1942.

The Australian War Cabinet had begun to express concern about the high casualty rates from tropical diseases, particularly malaria. The importance of hygiene, sanitation and tropical medicine was recognised in March 1943.

It was only because of wartime conditions that authorities were in a position to use human volunteers to trial the effectiveness of drugs used against malaria. Cairns became the focal point of an epic undertaking in planning and implementing malaria-research in Australia. It became the training ground for Malaria Control Units, before they were transferred to New Guinea or the islands. Cairns was the centre for, at least preliminary research into repellents, insecticidal sprays, and the use of DDT on the ground and from aircraft.

An area of 1200 hectares of the city was surveyed, and the Cairns City Engineer (Frank Morris), devised a drainage system to clear the swamps and establish a network of drains leading into larger channels. The Cairns City Council worked in co-operation with the malaria control units, where initially the breeding grounds of farauti were controlled by oiling the surfaces of swamps and low-lying areas, and then in the evening, spraying with pyrethrum to kill adult mosquitoes. It was acknowledged that a drainage project of that magnitude was going to be an enormous task. However, in a co-operative venture between local, state and federal authorities, and the Australian and U.S. Armies, 42kms of anti-malarial drains were constructed in Cairns.

The numbers of people contracting malaria declined rapidly. Between 1942 and 1945 some 2,000 civilians and military personnel contracted malaria in the district. In the same period Cairns City had approximately half the districts cases with 1000 patients. By 1948 the number of people suffering from malaria had dropped to nil.

So Cairns and Far North Queensland has had epidemics before, and we have manage to triumph over the dreaded lurgy – and we can do it again, but only if we pull together.