How to Survive a Plague by David France

How to Survive a Plague David FranceI am very pleased to be taking part in the official Wellcome Book Prize blog tour this week to champion ‘How to Survive a Plague’ by David France which is one of six titles shortlisted for this year’s prize awarded to a book on the subject of healthcare or medicine. It follows France’s 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary film of the same name and is a remarkable account of the activists and scientists who campaigned for awareness and funding towards fighting the AIDS epidemic in the United States.

The figures are stark. In July 1981, the New York Times published a short article with the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals”. A little more than three decades later, over 35 million people worldwide had died from AIDS-related illnesses, including over 650,000 in the United States alone, and a further 36 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS today.

‘How to Survive a Plague’ isn’t a global history of AIDS but instead focuses on the work of a group of gay activists in New York City. The fight to “tame” AIDS was not just about tackling the scientific and medical challenges in AIDS care, treatment and prevention but also about confronting stigma and changing social attitudes towards the LGBT community and the disease itself. The bureaucratic obstacles posed by the political and health care systems are particularly shocking. US President Ronald Reagan didn’t publicly acknowledge the existence of AIDS until 1985, by which point thousands of patients had already died. This was followed by several more years of chronic underfunding towards research as well as the AZT drug debacle and bitter disputes between American and French scientists over who should claim credit and royalties for discovering the HIV-1 virus.

France explains the medical developments of AIDS research in great depth but his account always remains highly accessible for general readers and he never loses sight of the human scale of the crisis. He watched close friends and his partner Doug Gould die of AIDS-related complications and the real power of his narrative lies in the personal stories of several activists and physicians including controversial playwright and author Larry Kramer, former Wall Street bond trader Peter Staley and researcher Joseph Sonnabend who established the first officially recognised buyer’s club allowing patients access to alternative therapies. Many others were involved in influential campaign groups such as ACT UP. From promoting safe sex to organising clinical drug trials, these individuals and organisations became self-taught experts in their field and the power of their grassroots activism paved the way towards the breakthrough of protease inhibitors becoming commercially available in 1996.

‘How to Survive a Plague’ is a dense, detailed and devastatingly powerful piece of social history. It is up against some very strong competition on the shortlist this year but I would be delighted to see this fascinating account win the Wellcome Book Prize next Monday.

Three other Wellcome Book Prize shortlisted authors Sarah Moss, Siddhartha Mukherjee and Maylis de Kerangal will be discussing their books at events in London this weekend and some tickets are still available. Five more bloggers are reviewing the other shortlisted books this week – do check out their posts too.

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “How to Survive a Plague by David France

  1. Great review Claire. This sounds an important book.

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  2. Susie | Novel Visits

    I remember well the early days of AIDS and the fear that everyone had of the disease. I think reading about what was going on behind the scenes would be really interesting. Great review!

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  3. You’ve done a wonderful job with this review. I’m going to post a quick response to this book (the last of the six shortlisted titles for me) on Saturday. I would tend to agree with your adjective ‘dense’, yet it’s a very important story that needed to be told.

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  4. Wow. What a fascinating book. I’m definitely interested in reading it – sounds like something a lot of people could benefit from learning about. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

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  5. What a great shortlist! I’ve requested this one from my library so I’m hoping to read it soon.

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  6. Pingback: Polishing off the Wellcome Prize Shortlist: How to Survive a Plague – Bookish Beck

  7. Excellent review of an important book. People my age lost several close friends to AIDS and that was only once it had an official diagnosis, there were more ‘unexplained’ deaths which in retrospect were most likely to have been the virus. I am so glad you are championing this book, but am glad to see The Tidal Zone on the list as well.

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  8. Pingback: The Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Awards Ceremony – Bookish Beck

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