Image: The Examiner, 17 March 2020

The declaration of a public health emergency in Tasmania on 17th March 2020 meant that stronger powers and sanctions would become available to the director of Public Health.

Image: Legislation Tasmania

The Tasmanian Public Health Act, 1997, allows for the Tasmanian Director of Public Health to declare a public health emergency. These powers provide a range of measures designed to manage the threat to public health and include compelling quarantine and evacuation using reasonable force and restricting access to areas with road closures. The law also allows for the Director to compel medical tests, confine people to a specified area, and to seize and destroy items.

For non-compliance, a fine of up to $16,800 or a 6-month prison term can be applied. In the case of an emergency, warrants can be issued over the phone.

Hobart is no stranger to epidemics. In 1884 a Public Health Act, specifically aimed at Hobart, was passed into law.

The legislation contained in the Public Health (Hobart) Act 1884 allowed for the enforcement of certain sanitary regulations within the City of Hobart. This Act was created in response to the typhoid epidemic of 1885 – 1888.

Typhoid fever didn’t start the year the legislation came into effect – typhoid patients had been admitted to Hobart General Hospital from as early as 1875, and continued to do so until 1911.

Of all the many thousands of patients admitted to the hospital for all conditions over those 36 years, typhoid fever was second only to those requiring treatment for fractures.

The peak of typhoid admissions was 1887, with nearly 300 patients admitted in that year, of which 38 died. While the number of admissions for typhoid fell over the next 3 years, the mortality ratio of those affected remained the same.

Typhoid fever reached epidemic proportions between 1887 – 1891, then recurred again in 1897 – 1898, after which the disease declined.

Typhoid was first mentioned in the Hobart press in 1835. Many locals were suffering what was described as a “fever of the typhoid type.”  The term typhoid originated with typhus – meaning resembling typhus. Typhus is also an infectious disease and they both produce similar symptoms. Typhus is transmitted by lice, ticks, mites and rats while typhoid is transmitted through faecal contamination of food and water.

1878 Dr William Budd. Image: Wikipedia Commons

In 1838 in England, Dr William Budd figured out that typhoid was caused by contaminated water, and suggested that strict isolation of typhoid patients would prevent further outbreaks. His 1878 publication  Typhoid Fever, Its Nature, Mode of Spreading, and Prevention details the initial outbreak of typhoid fever in his community in July 1839, starting in a poor and crowded home, and rapidly spreading. He explained that the contagion breeds in the human body and that the symptoms spread the infection to others.

As Hobart developed, and the population grew, so did the incidence of typhoid fever. The height of the epidemic in the late 1880s reflected the increase in the unsanitary conditions found in high density, low income areas of Hobart – in particular in the few blocks of Wapping, adjacent to the waterfront. Wapping was roughly located within the area bounded by Liverpool, Campbell, Macquarie Streets and Brooker Highway today. Take a wander down lower Collins Street to get a look at the little that remains of the original structures.

The Hobart Rivulet flowed from the foot of Mount Wellington down through Hobart and into Wapping then on to the Derwent River. It was used by many hundreds of households and industries as the public sewer.

1936 Hobart Rivulet in flood near Collins and Campbell St. Image: TAHO

The Rivulet frequently flooded into the yards, gardens and homes of the Wapping residents. The typhoid epidemic created a panic in Hobart thanks to the confusion created by the City Council’s change from the cesspit system to the pan system.

Only 26 homes in Wapping had signed on to the Sanitary Register for the pan system. The households bought their own toilet pans which were emptied weekly by the Council’s sanitary cart. The sewerage was loaded onto a boat in the Rivulet and taken down river to be dumped – although this was made impossible during low tide and other times of reduced flow particularly in summer. As you can expect – much of the effluent would flow back up the river and coat the shoreline and beaches.

1900 Hobart General Hospital Fever Wards. Image: TAHO

During the 1880s, new buildings and clean wards were built at the Hobart General Hospital to cope with the increase in demand for the treatment of typhoid patients. These were known as the fever wards, later termed the women’s blocks. Typhoid patients were cared for in the hospital by a group of dedicated nurses who put themselves at risk of infection. The nurses were greatly admired for their commitment and selflessness, and they acquired a very high reputation.

1887 Meritorious Service Award for Nurses at Hobart General Hospital. Image: ABC Local 2013

Calls for public recognition of their work brought better conditions and improved training – as well as the creation of special medals to reward the courage and devotion of the nurses at the Hobart General Hospital. Gold medals were presented to 19 nurses.

1876 Nurses and Staff at Hobart General Hospital.
Inset – France Abbott, Lady Superintendent 1876 – 1881.
Image: Portrait of a Hospital

So while we are in the early days of the current pandemic, rest assured that Hobartians are resilient. We have been there, done that – and lived to tell the tale.