Epidemics have been recorded in Victoria since the first years of settlement. Smallpox was amongst the earliest scourges, which caused significant suffering and death amongst First Peoples, although a vaccine was already available. Typhoid and other gastro-intestinal diseases spread with poor sanitation in growing urban centres and regional communities such as gold rush towns. The sewering of Melbourne in the late 19th century made a substantial difference to its rate of gastro-intestinal disease.

Measles became a serious epidemic in Victoria in the mid-1850s, then in 1875 a scarlet fever epidemic broke out. Tuberculosis was also feared and often fatal.

In the 20th century Victoria experienced several major health crises: Spanish influenza, polio, scarlet fever and AIDS. The polio epidemic of 1937-39 was particularly severe, with children kept home from school and public transport limited. Polio continued to be feared until the widespread introduction of oral sabin in the early 1960s.

Outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and measles were amongst other illnesses Victorians often continued to suffer until the introduction of vaccinations, improved hygiene practices, clean water and functioning sewerage, more spacious living conditions and better diet.

The Spanish influenza, which spread across large parts of the world in 1918, reached Australia in January 1919 on troopships returning from World War I. By the end of that year around 10,000 Australians, mostly young adults, had died of influenza - at a time when the Australian population was just over five million. Influenza pandemics also impacted Victoria in 1957, 1968 and 2009.

From 1904 the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital provided expert care and isolation for those suffering from serious infectious diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, smallpox and the epidemics of polio and scarlet fever. In its later years it included the treatment and palliative care of terminal HIV/AIDS sufferers. It was closed in 1996 amid controversy and community protest, with its functions relocated to other Melbourne hospitals.

See also narratives: Medicine in Society Collection; Fairfield Hospital Collection.

Department of Health, Australian Government, https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/about-pandemic-history, accessed 21/4/2020
'Diseases and Epidemics', Encyclopedia of Melbourne, http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00473b.htm, accessed 21/4/2020

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