In 1917, exactly one hundred years ago, a London-based physician called out his native country on tuberculosis:
“As long as apathy, arrogance, ignorance and indifference endure, so surely will tuberculosis claim its hourly victims,” he railed.
Tragically these same words can still be applied to TB today. Apathy is out there in spades along with undeniable and unacceptable arrogance in some quarters. And there’s no question that both ignorance and indifference prevail as well. So has NOTHING changed in the world of TB in the last hundred years?
Well, one thing has done – it’s certainly changed here in the UK. Back in 1917 when Dr Halliday Sutherland made his impassioned speech it was reckoned that one in every eight people were dying of TB in the UK. Today this rate is roughly one in every 2,200.
So what would Dr Sutherland be making of today’s pandemic, given that its victims are not being counted “hourly” as he did in his speech, but rather by minutes and even seconds (one TB death occurs roughly every 15 seconds)?
We suspect he’d be outraged. History here in the UK proves beyond doubt that TB CAN be driven into the gutter by medicine when it’s accompanied by effort commitment to social change. A century ago he identified that “modern medicine [had] … found the cause, sources and cure of this disease” so he’d surely now be asking why the hell a century later we’ve so abjectly failed to defeat it yet. In fact he as good as nailed it in 1917 identifying that:
“… man and man alone has created the conditions under which it may arise, spread and destroy.”
In other words it’s humanity itself (or perhaps more accurately our lack of humanity) that has allowed this disease to thrive in our globalised world right under our noses in spite of a vaccine and a set of drugs that plainly worked in the UK.
He also stated in his speech that prior to the 1914-18 war TB had been creating “one-eleventh of the total pauperism in England and Wales”. Today Archbishop Tutu is saying much the same thing, pointing out that TB is not just the awful child of poverty, it is also both its parent and provider.
Dare we suggest it, but that appalling one-eleventh factor for impoverishment might well be even higher today in some middle- and low-income countries – that is if anyone cared or dared to measure it.
But they won’t, will they, exactly because of those same four apocalyptic etiological horses - “apathy, arrogance, ignorance and indifference”.