Journal of an African Wildfire

Around ASF Blog
Volume 1 / Entry 5
March 1, 2012

Hello friends,

An interesting, new, HIV/AIDS-related book is being released today. I first heard about it during a February 27 interview with one of the authors on NPR’s Fresh Air. The book is Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It. The authors are Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg and award-winning AIDS researcher Daniel Halperin, Ph.D.. Using new scientific discoveries, the authors overturn conventional wisdom regarding the origin of the disease and the best way to fight it.

The basis of the book is that Simian Immunodeficiency Syndrome (SIV) – the chimpanzee version of HIV – was around for thousands of years and posed no threat to humans for most of that time. It was not until the colonial endeavors of Western powers drove African porters deeper into the remote forests of Cameroon and other African nations, in search of rubber, ivory, minerals and other riches, that the virus began to spread among humans.

Ninety-nine percent of AIDS deaths can be traced to a particular strain of HIV named “HIV-1 group M” which first appeared in the equatorial-forest areas of Cameroon. SIV most likely spread to humans, eventually mutating to HIV, through the butchering of chimpanzee meat by those African porters. It is now believed that blood from an infected animal entered an open wound on the human who was butchering it. This was the moment, over 100 years ago, when the HIV epidemic started.

The book goes on to relate how the colonial “machine,” through the creation of bustling new trade routes and modern colonial cities, as well as the spread of prostitution, sped the virus across Africa and turned what was a localized outbreak into a sprawling epidemic. The virus is then traced to Haiti, back across the ocean to Europe and finally to 1980’s San Francisco.

The authors also offer examples of successes in stemming the spread of the virus. Early efforts in Uganda and Zimbabwe initially slowed the spread of the disease by showing the efficacy of male circumcision. Hundreds of thousands of lives are estimated to have been saved by Ugandan government efforts alone.

These early successes were reversed by Western powers when United Nations money started to flow through the region. Western experts, at the time, were uncomfortable with the subject of circumcision and it became controversial and taboo. It’s taken 20 years to get Uganda back on track to where it was before the West started intervening.

Such interesting reading! I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon on the evening of the 27th. It should arrive today. Can’t wait to read more. I hope this blog entry has whetted your appetite to find out more, too.

If you want to download the Fresh Air podcast or read more on the interview, click here.

Thanks for reading!

Marc Montminy
Director of Communications and Public Relations

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