1913 – smallpox outbreak

Public health in Australia faced a great challenge in 1913 when there was a smallpox outbreak that by the month of July had already affected the three States of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – “patient zero” was believed to be a steward from SS Zealandia which came from Vancouver, who infected a young Sydney woman working at an underclothing factory in Chalmers Street through social contact three months earlier in April, when she visited him at his mother’s house. The woman then passed the disease on to her co-workers in the factory. July was a significant month in this outbreak in that panic was generated in society when the vaccine supply was exhausted. Furthermore, public opinion in some quarters turned against the North Head Quarantine Station when, given its proximity to the highly popular seaside suburb of Manly, it had to deal with admissions of over 1000 people who were either sick with smallpox or had contact with someone who was infected with the disease. The majority of the smallpox cases were in Sydney, and the spread of Variola major virus did not stop there until 1917, three years after the outbreak of the Great War. (Australia, like the rest of the world, was to face the much greater onslaught of the Spanish influenza pandemic the following year.) Despite the large number of smallpox patients in 1913, the strain of this dreaded disease was a mild one, with only one death recorded in Australia, namely that of a 29-year-old female patient in Sydney who died shortly after giving birth to a healthy baby boy.