How Spanish flu hit Bermuda 102 years ago

  • Repeat dose: Spanish flu swept North America and Bermuda, as reported in The Royal Gazette

    Repeat dose: Spanish flu swept North America and Bermuda, as reported in The Royal Gazette

  • Repeat dose: Spanish flu swept North America and Bermuda

    Repeat dose: Spanish flu swept North America and Bermuda


Doctors advised the sick to stay at home, not to visit their practices, but to phone for advice and to arrange treatment.

They also encouraged social distancing to prevent the spread of the potential killer complaint.

But they were not speaking in the past few weeks about Covid-19 — their voices echoed down more than 100 years from a time the world faced a much deadlier pandemic, Spanish flu, that killed at least 50 million around the world.

A front-page story on Spanish flu headlined “Influenza spreads in and near Hamilton” was carried in The Royal Gazette on September 28, 1918.

The report said: “Only the most rigid precautions will prevent further increase of the cases.”

It added: “Above all, avoid going to any public place or church where others gather, lest the germs of the disease be spread about.”

The report warned: “The epidemic of Spanish influenza is spreading in the town of Hamilton and in the adjoining country districts.”

It outlined the progress of the disease elsewhere and advised “‘Cover up each cough and sneeze; if you don’t, you’ll spread disease’ is suggested as the best slogan for everybody while influenza is raging.”

J.J. Soares, a Hamilton-based GP, said the same advice still held today, despite medical advances undreamt of a century ago.

Dr Soares added: “An infection needs to leap from person to person — it can’t swim, it can’t fly. Avoiding contact with surfaces is the hardest part and we should try to stay a distance from other people.”

Edward Harris, an historian and former head of the national museum, said: “I would have thought it was standing operating procedure and certainly applied with other diseases, like yellow fever, when they had epidemics of that in Bermuda.”

But the 1918 report said experts had said that there was “nothing alarming” about the new strain of flu if it was “properly treated and the patient takes care to avoid possible complications”.

The tone, however, became more urgent only a month later as the killer flu virus tightened its grip on Bermuda.

And — like Covid-19, although a very different virus — the island’s docks, the airports of their day and movement of people around the world, were major transmission routes for the disease.

A US Navy sailor, Rees Williams, who took ill as his ship steamed from Cuba to Bermuda and was transferred to the Royal Naval Hospital when the ship arrived at Dockyard on September 16, was the first recorded death from the virulent strain.

He died of pneumonia brought on by the flu on September 23.

There was a second outbreak on his ship while it was in Bermuda and 72 cases were seen.

Bermuda National Library documments said 114 deaths were recorded as caused by Spanish flu, with 18 attributed to pneumonia and seven due to relapses.

The total number of deaths was recorded as 139 out of a population of about 20,000.

A Dr Harvey, in a report on the epidemic, said that the first case diagnosed on the island was a private soldier in the East Yorkshire Regiment, which was based at Prospect.

The soldier, who took ill on September 15, had earlier travelled on a steamer to Boaz Island and returned the same day with several workers from the then Royal Naval Dockyard.

A British Army sergeant, who had had no contact with the sick private, came down with Spanish flu on September 17.

The third case was found to have been in contact with the private and was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital on the same day as the sergeant.

There was a total of 37 confirmed cases of the disease two days later.

The first civilian case was recorded in Somerset, followed by cases in Pembroke and more in St George’s “a day or two” later.

They were all logged in the last ten days of September.

Dr Soares said: “The coronavirus seems to be very transmissible, you infect countries from outside the countries then you get infection inside countries, community spread.”

He explained the coronavirus that caused Covid-19 appeared to be fast transmission — and the problem was “the number and volume of people who will be infected”.

Dr Soares said: “It’s much more infective than the flu, so more people will get it.”

He added: “Even if we achieve eradication in Bermuda, which we could do, we have to open our borders sometime and what countries do you allow, what people do you allow in?

“Until we have a vaccine that works, it’s very difficult.”

Dr Soares explained that tests for antibodies to the virus existed. He said: “The answer will be in testing for antibodies for it. That’s the only way we can really safely open our borders. But we would have to test everybody in the world for antibodies and that’s difficult and draconian, too.”

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Published Apr 6, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Apr 12, 2020 at 2:22 am)

How Spanish flu hit Bermuda 102 years ago

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