How the West Sparked the Aids Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It
by Craig Timberg & Daniel Halperin, PhD
In this groundbreaking narrative, longtime Washington Post journalist Craig Timberg and award-winning AIDS researcher Daniel Halperin tell the surprising story of how Western colonial powers unwittingly sparked the AIDS epidemic and then fanned its rise. Drawing on remarkable new science, Tinderbox overturns the conventional wisdom on the origins of this deadly epidemic and the best ways to fight it today.
Recent genetic discoveries have traced the birth of HIV to the forbidding equatorial forests of Cameroon, where chimpanzees carried a nearly identical virus for millennia without causing a major outbreak in humans. During the Scramble for Africa near the turn of the twentieth century, colonial companies blazed new routes through the jungle in search of rubber and other riches, sending African porters into remote regions rarely traveled before. It was here, during the age of European conquest, that humans first contracted the strain of HIV that would eventually cause 99 percent of AIDS deaths around the world.
Western powers were key actors in turning a localized outbreak into a sprawling epidemic as bustling new trade routes, modern colonial cities, and the rise of prostitution sped the virus across
Africa. Christian missionaries campaigned to suppress polygamy but left in its place fractured sexual cultures that proved uncommonly vulnerable to HIV. Equally devastating was the gradual loss of the African ritual of male circumcision, which recent studies have shown offers significant protection against infection.
Timberg and Halperin argue that the same Western hubris that marked the colonial era has hamstrung the effort to fight HIV. From the United Nations AIDS program to the Bush administration’s historic relief campaign, global health officials have favored well-meaning Western approaches— condom promotion, abstinence campaigns, HIV testing—that have proven ineffective in slowing the epidemic in Africa. Meanwhile they have overlooked homegrown African initiatives aimed squarely at the behaviors spreading the virus.
In a riveting story that stretches from colonial Leopoldville to 1980s San Francisco to South Africa today, Tinderbox reveals how human hands unleashed this devastating epidemic and can now overcome it, if only we can learn the lessons of the past.
Craig Timberg is the former Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post. From his position, he visited twenty-three nations reporting on the HIV epidemic and penned dozens of major stories about AIDS. He is now The Washington Post's deputy national security editor.
Daniel Halperin, Ph.D., is an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has taught at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He was a top technical advisor in the U.S. government's PEPFAR program to combat AIDS.
This absorbing interdisciplinary study of HIV/AIDS explores how the West inadvertently unleashed the AIDS epidemic and then failed to combat it effectively, especially in the most vulnerable regions in Africa. Drawing on the latest genetic research, Washington Post reporter Timberg and Harvard epidemiologist and medical anthropologist Halperin trace the disease’s origins in the Cameroonian jungle, where HIV’s transmission from chimps to humans coincided with the rapacious period of colonial expansion as the quest for rubber sap and ivory created new transportation networks (porter paths, steamship lines, airstrips, and highways), along which the disease traveled, and a large, hectic colonial city (Leopoldville; now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Africa’s susceptibility, the authors suggest, was partly due to changing social customs. For example, Christian missionaries discouraged rituals such as male circumcision, now known to significantly reduce the spread of HIV. As the Western powers (namely the U.N. AIDS program and President George W. Bush’s initiative) poured money into combating the spread of AIDS, they favored biomedical approaches (shots, pills, HIV testing, condom promotion) and ignored potentially life-saving African initiatives, such as modifying sexual behavior and male circumcision. Highlighting the politics of AIDS, where there were powerful incentives to work within the conventional wisdom to win lucrative government contracts, this timely exposé advocates practical solutions to a seemingly intractable problem.
Timberg, the former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Washington Post and current deputy national security editor, and Halperin, an epidemiologist and AIDS expert at Harvard, trace the history, growth and spread of HIV and present what will in the minds of many be a controversial approach to addressing the disease.
Although the subtitle sounds vaguely conspiratorial, the authors crisply chronicle the origins of AIDS from chimpanzees in West Africa and follow the perhaps shockingly slow spread of HIV across the African continent and to the rest of the world. The key factor in the spread of the disease was the expansion of European colonialism in Africa, which took a virus that otherwise may well have died off and instead created the conditions by which, decades later, it would become a scourge in many parts of the world. But European colonial-era malfeasance is not the only issue at work in this book. In addition to a useful history of the disease, Timberg and Halperin examine how to confront it and develop more effective ways to fight it. If Western imperialism is to blame for the initial proliferation of HIV/AIDS, Western arrogance and the unintended consequences of good intentions may well have prevented adequate treatment. While Western health advocates have supported abstinence campaigns and condom use, the authors argue that homegrown initiatives hold more promise than many Westerners have been willing to acknowledge, and that new research on the importance of sexual behavior and male circumcision is central to developing a coherent approach going forward.
Timberg and Halperin may ruffle feathers with some of their unorthodox views, but they present a forceful case with which future students of HIV and AIDS will have to reckon.