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Selfless bravery from Spanish Flu to Ebola

The brave response of Australian Red Cross to disease outbreak spans 100 years

Thursday October 30, 2014

These brave Red Cross Voluntary Aids aren't responding to Ebola, but rather the world-wide Spanish Flu pandemic after World War One, in 1919.

Today our brave Red Cross aid workers are on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, treating patients and helping to control the spread of the deadly disease.

Almost one hundred years ago, hundreds of brave Red Cross Voluntary Aides (VAs) were taking great personal risks at home in Australia to help control the spread of the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic.

The Spanish flu swept across the world in three waves between 1918 and 1919, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide, more than any other pandemic in history. Just as the world is struggling to respond to Ebola today, many countries were unprepared to deal with the spread of Spanish Flu following four long years of war.

Despite strict quarantine rules, Spanish Flu reached Australia in 1919 via returning soldiers travelling home from Europe. It started in Victoria then spread to NSW and the rest of the country.

By the end of 1919 around 10,000 Australians, mostly young and healthy adults, had died. Our health services were greatly stretched during this time, leading Red Cross to help control the spread of the disease.

The founder of Australian Red Cross, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson had a vision that after World War One, Red Cross could turn its attentions to civilian hospitals and community health services.

Her vision quickly became a reality.

Red Cross Voluntary Aids (VAs) provided essential voluntary labour for the Army medical services and State Health Ministers, in addition to their work caring for sick, wounded and disabled soldiers in Red Cross sanatoria and convalescent homes.

The wearing of face masks was made compulsory by the government, and people who appeared in public without their masks risked arrest. By February 1919, Red Cross workers had made over 700,000 masks.

In January 1919 Influenza Emergency Depots were opened around Sydney, in places like Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and the convalescent home at 'Graythwaite' in North Sydney. Managed by the Department of Health and staffed by Red Cross VAs, they inoculated local residents, treated sufferers and nursed them to recovery. Red Cross reported that from March to July 1919 almost 120,000 cases were attended at the main depots around Sydney.

Red Cross volunteers were trained for the influenza epidemic at the Inoculation Depot in Darlinghurst. Much of their work included providing inoculations, swabbing, boiling and sterilising needles, dealing with people who had fainted and generally nursing and caring for large crowds of often frantic and distraught people. As the situation worsened in Sydney, the Red Cross was asked to manage and staff a temporary influenza hospital with 60 volunteer nurses.

As the demand grew, they also hired professional nurses, medical orderlies and medical students from the University of Sydney to assist.

As hundreds of thousands of men returned to Australia, hospitals and convalescent homes filled to overflowing with both soldiers and sick civilians. 100 Red Cross VAs were seconded to one military hospital in Randwick which was experiencing severe staff shortages. They had to wear masks and spend thirty minutes in a fumigating room after each shift.

In Sydney alone many hundreds of women risked death to volunteer for Red Cross, and many became infected with the disease.

By May 1919 three VAs had died from influenza contracted whilst nursing patients - Ms Oag from Lane Cove, Miss Leela Prince from Darlinghurst and Miss Marietta Twyford-Jones from Lakemba.

We pay tribute to all those brave Red Cross people who provide humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable people in need.

For more Red Cross stories visit our Centenary website.

Source: Melanie Oppenheimer, Red Cross VAs - A History of the VAD movement in NSW, 1999, Ohio Productions, Walcha.


Centenary 2014

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Explore 100 years of Red Cross in Australia and learn how you can be part of the great Australian story. Go to the Centenary 2014 site »