FLOODS of biblical proportions and a virus raging out of control – sound familiar? However, this was not the late winter of 2020, but Worcester in January, 1966.

Today’s Coronavirus and the flooding and storms which have swept across the UK in recent weeks, echo a bizarre happening 44 years ago. Then the “Worcester Bug”, as it came to be known, caused acute stomach pains and diarrhoea and laid low more than 30,000 people, about half the city’s 68,000 population at the time.

The epidemic made national press headlines as experts investigated the possibility it had been carried in by the severe floods that hit the city immediately before the outbreak.

The first cases were reported on the morning of December 20, 1965 when Dr Godfrey O’Donnell, Worcester’s medical officer of health, received two telephone calls: a school in the eastern part of the city had serious absenteeism and so had a large factory in the same area. Both pupils and workers were sick.

After rapid enquiries Dr O’Donnell found that people in other parts of the city were also affected. As Worcester was then facing its second peak flooding of December, suspicion fell on the water supply. The public health department immediately took faeces samples from patients and samples from the water pipes.

The water supply tested normal, but health officials discovered that thousands of people had been buying up vast quantities of pills and stomach mixtures since well before December 20 – in some cases as far back as December 10 when the first peak floods occurred.

In fact, some chemists had run out of supplies. 

Strangely, tests in neighbouring town like Upton-upon-Severn and Pershore showed the only people affected were those who had commuted from Worcester.

After extensive testing, the water supply was given a complete all clear and the culprit turned out to be a respiratory virus known as Coxackie B3. Dr O’Donnell explained: “During the pre-Christmas period many people were out shopping and at parties and added to this, those working in factories and large organisations, spread the infection to epidemic proportions.

The virus first became known in the New England town of Coxackie, America, in 1949 and there has never been an epidemic of this magnitude of this virus or any other similar condition in this country before.” 

Exactly what caused the “Worcester Bug” was never really  pinned down and within a month it had gone.

But as well as its effect on the local population, the pressure of investigating it also dampened down the Irish wit of the affable Dr O’Donnell, who once announced to the City Council: ”I have pleasure in presenting my tenth annual report. Although a paperback  largely concerned with sex, violence, birth and death, it is unlikely to excite the prurient mind!”