Indonesia's Pandemic Flu 1918 Unearthed

“I lost my aunts, Three of them,” said Kun Masora, the member of the Tana Toraja tribal council.

“It happened in 1918. All died of high fever,” said the 70-year-old man, referring to a story told by his mother about a deadly plague that hit his hometown 91 years ago.

Masora’s mother survived the outbreak and lives to tell her children. She died in 1995. Her story was also told by a folklore that is passed through generations during traditional ceremonies, especially in burial ceremonies.

The mysterious outbreak, dubbed locally as Raa’ba Biang (loosely translated as fallen threes), killed hundreds of people in the hilly areas of Tana Toraja.

Medical records from the Dutch Colonial administration, who ruled Tana Toraja and most parts of what is Indonesia at present, explained that the outbreak was influenza. It was part of the global pandemic that killed some 50 millions across the world in 1918, popularly know as Spanish Flu. The Dutch estimated that about 10 percent of the 3,000 Torajans died, meanwhile Masora said his mum told him that around half of the Torajan population died of the deadly flu.

Another tribal elder, Tato Dena, said that the massive deaths were caused by a disease that is transmitted from human to human.

“My father said, the air seems to be poisoned. Not a single family that did not lost its members,” said the 71-year-old.

“Even those who bury the dead, died instantly after they had contact with the corpse.”

“My father said, people do not have time to bury dead people and therefore layed them scatter in cemeteries across Toraja,” said the 71-year-old, who lost his grandfather due to the pandemic.

The Sirope cemetery at Makale, Tana Toraja, is a silent witness of the deadly outbreak. Differ from the scenes of other cemeteries, where one-whole-one-corpse principal is applied, in Sirope, we can see skulls and bones lying around across the burial complex.

Masora’s and Dena’s testimonies confirm that Indonesia has had experience pandemic flu just like the America and the Europe. With the recent spread of avian influenza H5N1 virus, which has killed more than 100 people across the world, half of it in Indonesia, experts fear that a global pandemic could occur once the virus mutates and able to cause intrahuman infection.

Therefore UNICEF Indonesia is determined to cope with the threat by promoting awareness in combating avian influenza and train people of pandemic preparedness.

One of UNICEF’s initiative is to carry out series of table top simulation to respond to pandemic influenza.

“The aim is to equip officials with knowledge on how to prepare and make a plan to respond to future pandemic,” said Purwanta Iskandar, UNICEF’s Field Office Chief of South Sulawesi.

“We pray it never happened. But, once it does, we should be ready,” he added.