Learning from the 1918 Penang Influenza Pandemic


One of the major concerns of regional – in fact of all – governments today is the sudden spread of deadly diseases. Modern travel has allowed germs, bacteria and viruses to reach distant corners of the globe in no time at all. Learning from the way past epidemics were handled will provide valuable information for us to prepare for future disasters.

Penang as an entrepot during colonial times was not only a collection and distribution centre for trading commodities but also housed a cosmopolitan migrant population. This certainly made it a bustling and exciting site for social, cultural and economic exchange. However, with such dynamic human interaction, it also became vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Since its establishment, the spread of diseases was of great concern to the settlers of the island. Cholera, malaria, smallpox and plague frequently troubled them. In 1819, the first cholera outbreak occurred in Penang and killed 2,000 people – i.e. 5.5% of the inhabitants of the settlement.

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