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When paraffin was prescribed for deadly Spanish flu

By Amos Kareithi | Jan 18th 2022 | 2 min read

Railway equipment being offloaded from freighters in Mombasa, 1895. [File, Standard]

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2019, panicked patients threw all manner of homemade remedies ranging from the comical to the macabre at it, and often with spectacular failure.

These self-medication strategies were neither prescribed nor approved by health officials, never mind that in countries like Tanzania and Madagascar, it was presidents who urging their citizens to swallow the concoctions.

Some of the remedies were not as bizarre as what Kenyan doctors prescribed during another global pandemic some 100 years ago.

When a ship docked at Mombasa in 1918, it brought with it some soldiers who had contracted the dreaded Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 150,000 people in nine months.

When the colonial government realised that things were running out control, the Principal Medical Officer of East Africa Protectorate Dr A D Milne gave out a string of unconventional prescriptions which were principally meant to stop panic and mass hysteria.

In a memo issued on November 21, 1918, Milne wrote: “…The administration of one teaspoonful of paraffin oil three times a day has been spoken of as having good result when administered to Africans suffering from this disease.”

He further counselled: “As regards the dieting of the sick, milk, uji (porridge) of wimbi (millet meal), mtama (finger millet meal), or mahindi (maize meal), and such should be given at frequent intervals.”

He encouraged other medics to be creative in inspiring hope and further advised: “Possibly simple remedies which would give confidence without doing harm could be issued to chiefs for distribution such as quinine, salts or what not.”

Earlier, the medic’s desperation was captured in his response to a question posed in Legislative Council sitting in Mombasa on July 19, 1920 when he said:

“There is a shortage of plague serum in the protectorate; we have been sourcing the serum from Haffkines Laboratory, Bombay at the cost of 16.5 cents per dose. During the last 12 months, 77,500 doses were needed at a cost of 12,840.62 Rupees.”

The idea of putting up a local facility that could manufacture the serum was mooted but could not be effected immediately because there was need to construct a new building. The thinking then was that local production of the colony could save Kenya lot of money as each dose would cost just 3 cents instead.

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