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Book offers lessons on how to cope

3 November 2005

Book offers lessons on how to cope should NZ face another pandemic

When faced with a potential global pandemic Associate Professor Geoffrey Rice recommends taking a lesson out of the pages of history.

The University of Canterbury history professor has been following media coverage of the bird flu (or more particularly the avian H5N1 strain) plaguing South-east Asia with great interest and he believes there are lessons to be learned from New Zealand’s worst public health crisis, the 1918 “Spanish influenza” pandemic.

The “Black Flu” claimed the lives of more than 8,500 New Zealanders in the space of just six weeks from late October to early December 1918 and killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

This tragic chapter in New Zealand’s history is the subject of Professor Rice’s book Black November: The 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, released this month as a revised second edition by Canterbury University Press.

“This book is being published at a time of heightened international anxiety about the risk of another flu pandemic, from the H5N1 Asian bird flu. Facing a global pandemic naturally raises the questions: ‘How will we cope?’ and ‘How did we cope last time?’”

While modern communication networks keep us up to date with what is happening, jet travel has made the world a viral village and a pandemic as potentially lethal as that of 1918 could spread around the globe within days, says Professor Rice.

“I’ve argued that the front line will be in our homes. If a pandemic does eventuate and reach this country, hospitals and public health systems will be swamped and people will be thrown back on their own resources. There is a need to think beyond medical resources to community resources.

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“In 1918 the whole country was already mobilised for the war effort with Red Cross and fundraising groups well established. In many places the Patriotic Committee simply became the Epidemic Committee. To what extent has New Zealand society become less neighbourly than 1918? Can we rely on our neighbours to look after us?”

The final chapter of Black November asks what lessons might be drawn from the 1918 pandemic that will be useful if New Zealand faces another one and offers some advice on how to avoid infection and what to do if the disease invades our homes.

First published in 1988, Black November now has three new chapters to bring it up to date, more than 50 first-hand eyewitness accounts, and more than 200 photographs and cartoons, many published for the first time.

New chapters in the second edition trace the history of influenza before 1918, set the pandemic in the context of the Great War, and map out the exciting developments in influenza research since 1918, including the 1997 identification of the virus responsible for the Spanish flu.

Based on extensive research in newspapers and death registers, this was the first book anywhere in the world to analyse the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic using the information from individual death certificates for a whole country.

Black November will be launched locally at the University of Canterbury’s University Bookshop on Wednesday, 9 November at 5.30pm.

In Auckland, the city hit hardest by the flu in 1918, the book will be launched on Saturday 26 November at the New Zealand Historical Association Biennial Conference being held at the University of Auckland.

Professor Rice will also deliver this year’s Outside the Square lecture, focusing on Christchurch’s experience of the 1918 influenza pandemic and considering what lessons can be drawn from that experience to assist in combating a future influenza pandemic or similar “disease-disaster” here.

The free public lecture, hosted by the University of Canterbury in partnership with the Christchurch City Council and the Canterbury History Foundation, will be delivered on Tuesday 29 November 2005 at 5.30pm in the James Hay Theatre, Christchurch Town Hall.


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