When people hear the words ‘bubonic plague’, thoughts turn to the deadly pandemic that swept through Asia and Europe killing tens of millions of people during the Middle Ages. However, the infectious disease, spread to humans by rat fleas, came closer to home with multiple epidemics occurring in Queensland in the early part of the 20th century.
Queensland went on high alert after the discovery of plague-infected rats at a Sydney wharf in January 1900. Trade vessels constantly traveled between Sydney and Brisbane and there were concerns the disease would quickly spread throughout Queensland. Local health and medical authorities worked together to exterminate rats around Brisbane and any rodents found sick or already dead were tested for infection.
On 5 March, Queensland’s worst fears were realised. A rat carrying the disease was found dead in a shop close to the wharf. However, the first cases of plague in humans did not occur until mid-April – in Rockhampton, followed by Brisbane at the end of the same month.
The government response to the outbreak was immediate. Special plague hospitals were established, and the Health Act 1900 was passed to introduce sanitary reforms. Regulations outlining the requirements for the notification of cases, isolation, inoculation, treatments, destruction of infected areas and the extermination and destruction of rats were issued and enforced throughout the state. Medical and health practitioners were given details of symptoms, how to diagnose the disease and how to obtain and forward samples for testing. The public were also advised on how the infection was spread and the dangers regarding rats.
Three times as many men than women became infected and this was largely attributed to their occupations. Carters, wharf workers, grocers and others who worked in or around produce or foodstuffs – where rat infestation was rife – had an increased chance of becoming ill, as did people in poor living conditions. There was also a higher mortality rate for men than women. People aged between 20 and 35 years old were the most likely to get infected. Children up to 15 years old were the next highest category. There were very few cases among infants or the elderly.
After its emergence in 1900, there were plague epidemics each year through to 1909, with major outbreaks occurring in port towns along the coast from Brisbane to Cairns and isolated instances reported in country areas. The disease lay dormant for 12 years until another outbreak in 1921. The last Queensland case of the bubonic plague was reported in 1922.
Not all plagues are created equal
While Queensland was grappling with the bubonic plague, there were also cases of the pneumonic plague. The bubonic plague is contracted through bites from an infected flea whereas the pneumonic develops when other types of plague is untreated and spreads to a patient’s lungs. It can then be transmitted through close contact via respiratory droplets.
Australia’s only outbreak of the pneumonic plague was in Maryborough, in 1905 where eight deaths were recorded. The results could have been catastrophic if the outbreak wasn’t contained.