Recent events have led to a large increase in the sales (and possibly reading) of “1984” by George Orwell with his highly charged description of a dystopia set in the future. Orwell wrote a number of books that have remained powerful and relevant, including his most famous – “Animal Farm.”
But Orwell wrote a large number of books and essays – and it is one of his other books that left a lasting impression on me. In “Down and Out in Paris and London,” Orwell presented a memoir of his life in poverty in both cities. The book provided an insight into the struggles faced by many to survive in the face of limited means and opportunities. His description of casual employment in the hotel trade in Paris, and life on the road as a “tramp” in England are vivid and insightful. This recommended reading provides an insight into poverty and its effect on the psyche, not just the body.
Another aspect of Orwell’s life is less known, but relevant to our work at IDRI. Orwell suffered from tuberculosis. His illness illustrates the complexity of TB infection and disease and the difficulties of treating it, as well as the role of politics in health care.
As early as 1938, he was diagnosed with TB, although he may have been infected earlier. At this time, treatment was limited to rest and fresh air. Orwell spent time in a sanatorium and appeared to make a recovery. Almost 10 years later, in 1946, the first TB drug, streptomycin, was released, but was not generally available in the United Kingdom. When Orwell’s TB reignited, political pressure was applied to get him access to this new “wonder drug.”
Of note, during this time, Orwell was writing his dystopian novel “1984” between bouts of illness. Unfortunately, despite his treatment, Orwell was not cured, his TB returned and a second course of streptomycin was not enough to cure him. Orwell finally died in 1950 from TB after a lung hemorrhage.
Although we have more drugs to treat TB today, they are still not as effective as we would like, and the reoccurrence or reactivation of disease is still prevalent. In 2016, more than a million people died from TB – a shocking figure. And already in 2017, here in Seattle, we see evidence of tuberculosis: a confirmed case at a suburban Seattle high school and nearly 200 staff and patients at a local hospital who may have been exposed.
This is why we continue to work on this ancient scourge in an attempt to improve people’s lives.