Coughing Steward serves Death to Hundreds of Train Passengers - News - Gondwana Collection

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Coughing Steward serves Death to Hundreds of Train Passengers

Avatar of inke inke - 09. October 2015 - Discover Namibia

Many victimes of the Spanish flu were laid to rest in the graveyard at Aus.

It is a virus with many names. 2007 it was called swine flu, in 1978 it was the Russian flu and in 1918 the Spanish flu. Scientists prosaically speak of the Influenza Virus Subtype A/H1N1. But whatever the name, this virus always spells death. Its worst outbreak was during the final months of the First World War when it raged worldwide, massively aided by the military. It even makes its way to the remote little hamlet of Aus and thins out the ranks in the POW camp, among the guards as much as among the prisoners. It happened around this time, 92 years ago.

In the vastness of South West Africa a steam locomotive slowly puffs along with its coaches. The compartments are stuffy even though the windows are wide open. There is not a breath of air and the train's faint airstream barely provides any cooling. Every seat on the train is taken. Many of the passengers are South African soldiers on their way to a new post in occupied South West Africa. The journey proceeds without anything noteworthy happening. It just takes longer than usual before snacks and drinks are served. Apparently one of the stewards is in bed with a fever and a chill, asking for drinks of water all the time. As soon as the train pulls into Windhoek the man is taken to hospital. He is critically ill and dies two days later, on 9 October 1918.

Train steward J. Bester from South Africa is the first of 2,600 fatalities which the Spanish influenza claims in South West Africa within five devastating weeks. The number of unreported cases is probably much higher because many locals flee from the towns and villages and perish in the veld. Millions of people all over the world succumb to the flu – estimates vary between 25 and 50 million. Within just a few months the virus claims far more victims than the Great War which left some 16.5 million people dead in the span of four years.

Haskell County in the US State of Kansas seems to have been the starting point of the pandemic. There the first cases are diagnosed by a doctor in January 1918. After three men from the area have been called up for army service the flu breaks out in the training camp. The military commanders refuse to stop troop transports or delay them by imposing quarantine because the allies in Europe are in urgent need of fresh troops. Thus the virus conveniently crosses the Atlantic Ocean and in the barracks and trenches finds ideal conditions to spread further. News of the ravaging flu is either lost in the turmoil of war or falls victim to censorship. Only in neutral Spain, where in some towns up to one third of the inhabitants fall ill, the pandemic is not hushed up – therefore it becomes known as the 'Spanish influenza'. More appropriately it should be called the 'American flu'.

On British troop ships the virus makes its way to Cape Town. Alarmed by reports from Europe, the South African authorities put all the men (3,900 in total) under quarantine for several days. Strangely enough, however, nobody falls ill and the men are allowed to continue to their various destinations – in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and South West Africa. Very soon afterwards the Spanish flu breaks out everywhere almost simultaneously. Especially places with a high density of people, e.g. the towns and townships, are severely affected, followed by workers' hostels in the mines, army barracks and prison camps.

At the POW camp in Aus the first cases of the flu are diagnosed on 11 October 1918. The virus quickly spreads from the guards to the prisoners. The first death is recorded on the 14th, the number of sick people rises from 44 to 208 within 24 hours. The last death occurs one month later, on November 16th. The flu claims a total of 105 victims - 50 soldiers and 55 POW. At 8.3 percent the death rate among the guards (600 men) is even twice as high as it is among the prisoners (4.1 percent of the 1,438 men). The worldwide death rate is 3 percent; a rate of 0.1 percent is considered 'normal' in cases of severe flu.

The death of Mary Ann 'Breeza' Nelson, wife of the Garrison Adjutant, Major Edward Irving Nelson, is particularly tragic. Breeza is a qualified nurse and looks after flu patients in the emergency hospital day and night. She still continues after she has fallen ill herself until she collapses and dies while on duty one day. As a tribute to her selfless commitment she is buried with military honours – even though she is a civilian. The inscription on her gravestone reads: "She gave her life while she wanted to help others".

In late November the whole calamity ends almost as suddenly as it started. The authorities in South West Africa are counting the losses: 2,600 people are dead, among them 312 of European descent, 43 Baster and 2,245 Africans. Graves dating back to October and November 1918 can still be found on cemeteries all over the country. Something which is very extraordinary is the fact that mostly strong young people have died, when usually small children and the aged tend to be most affected. Medical scientists explain decades later that this virus seems to cause the immune system to overreact, so that the body's defence mechanisms help to destroy the healthy tissue of the respiratory system. Quite a paradox: the stronger the immune system, the more likely is death...

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