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Story: Epidemics

In 2009 there was widespread concern about the ‘swine flu’ pandemic. While there were 20 deaths in New Zealand, this was a tiny percentage of the 8,500 who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. Since the advent of vaccination, antibiotics and better sanitation, epidemics have been more readily controlled.

Story by Geoff Rice
Main image: A girl receives a rubella vaccination in 1982

Story Summary

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What are epidemics and pandemics?

An epidemic is when many people have the same disease at the same time. They are usually caused by infectious diseases, such as influenza (flu).

A pandemic is when an epidemic spreads between many countries.

How diseases are controlled

Many diseases that used to be common, such as polio, have been controlled by immunisation. This causes a person’s body to produces cells and antibodies to protect them from the disease. Other diseases have been controlled by better hygiene and sewerage systems, or new drugs.

Early settlers and diseases

European settlers brought new diseases such as measles and flu to New Zealand. Māori lacked natural immunity to these diseases, so many died from them.

Early settlements usually did not have clean water and sewerage systems, which made diseases such as typhoid very common.

Influenza pandemics

Flu pandemics occurred in 1890–94 and 1918. The 1918 pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide and 8,500 in New Zealand.

Polio

Poliomyelitis (polio) was a common disease until the 1960s. It could cause paralysis and death. Polio vaccines have removed the virus from New Zealand.

Epidemics since the 1970s

Meningococcal disease, which causes meningitis, reached epidemic proportions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Between 2004 and 2007 more than 1.1 million children and young adults were immunised against meningococcal group B virus.

Better health services, immunisation and antibiotics have meant that epidemics have become less frequent. Despite this, hospitalisation rates for infectious diseases have increased, and air travel means diseases can more easily travel between countries. In 2009 the ‘swine flu’ pandemic caused 3,000 cases and 20 deaths in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Geoff Rice, 'Epidemics', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/epidemics (accessed 27 April 2017)

Story by Geoff Rice, published 5 May 2011