A national memorial commemorating the victims of the influenza pandemic that swept through New Zealand a century ago, which is already late, has been further delayed.

The unveiling was to have been on April 3 - more than four months after the centenary of when the pandemic was waning.

It was understood Prime Minister Jacinda Adern was to unveil the memorial plaque at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington.

"The memorial design is still being finalised and will no longer be unveiled at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park on Wednesday 3 April," said a Ministry of Culture and Heritage spokeswoman. "No date for the unveiling ceremony has been set as yet."

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Around 9000 New Zealanders died from influenza or the related pneumonia that developed in many victims. Most of the deaths occurred from October to December 1918, just as World War I was ending.

The number of deaths from the pandemic was more than half the number who died while serving during the four years of the war.

Health researchers who have expressed their concern at the small number of public 1918/19 pandemic memorials - they found just seven that are accessible to the public - are glad of the Government's move to create a national memorial, but say it is a lost opportunity for pandemic planning and public education.

Professor Michael Baker, of Otago University at Wellington, and colleagues want a "living memorial" and have suggested a research fund be set up to help prevent pandemics and increase New Zealand's preparedness to deal with health disasters.

"What amazes us is the relative attention paid to the pandemic compared with other huge events that disrupted society and resulted in lots of premature deaths," Baker said.

"It seems way below the level of interest that's applied to other events and the obvious one is war memorials. Yet this event was by far the biggest natural disaster in New Zealand's history."

Private Douglas MacKenzie, injured in the August 1918 Battle of Bapaume in France and part of New Zealand's brief post-war German occupation force, made it through the worst months of the pandemic in Europe seemingly without falling ill, possibly because he received injections of an experimental vaccine.

He returned home, married and raised a family.

"I see that the flu has been pretty bad in NZ," MacKenzie wrote from Britain to his sister Agnes in March 1919. "It is going about over here also but the soldiers seem to be quiet [sic - quite] free of it. They have inoculated us twice for it, they say that will stop it."

Private Douglas MacKenzie's letter home in 1919 mentioned the influenza pandemic and the inoculation he and other New Zealand soldiers were given.
Private Douglas MacKenzie's letter home in 1919 mentioned the influenza pandemic and the inoculation he and other New Zealand soldiers were given.

In fact, the pandemic killed more than 900 New Zealand military personnel, according to a study by Baker, Professor Nick Wilson and colleagues.

Wilson has highlighted New Zealand's part in the vaccine experiments, citing a 1919 Lancet medical journal study of which NZ military pathologist Captain Cronin Lowe was a co-author.

It was still at least 14 years before the human influenza virus would be identified. Instead, Lowe's team brewed up batches of vaccine containing killed bacteria of the kind that caused the secondary complications of influenza and injected them into thousands of New Zealand military personnel.

One batch was made with samples collected from sick soldiers on an incoming troop ship in September 1918, "among whose company during the last 10 days of its voyage a very fatal form of septicaemic influenzal pneumonia had broken out".

Wilson considers it most likely to have been the Tahiti. With more than 1000 on board, the Tahiti was infected at Sierra Leone. Seventy-six people died, including Private Terence Carroll, who, delirious with serious bronchitis, jumped overboard to his death.

Terence Carroll jumped overboard and was lost from the Kiwi troop ship Tahiti which was infected with influenza in 1918. He was delirious from a major secondary infection.
Terence Carroll jumped overboard and was lost from the Kiwi troop ship Tahiti which was infected with influenza in 1918. He was delirious from a major secondary infection.

Lowe's paper reported a lower incidence of influenza among the inoculated Kiwi troops and a markedly lower death rate - 0.26 per cent, compared to 2.2 per cent for those not inoculated.

A 2010 re-analysis of three 1918 military studies of killed-bacteria vaccines, published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, found that in people with influenza they had efficacy rates of 59 per cent for preventing pneumonia and 70 per cent for case fatality.

Wilson said, "... it is likely that higher uptake of pneumococcal vaccination by older people in current day NZ would decrease the death rate of these people during a pandemic."

He advocated assessing the cost-effectiveness of extending funding of these vaccines to older people during a pandemic.