How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic


Genetic evidence strongly indicates that the AIDS pandemic originated in southeastern Cameroon sometime between 1880 and 1920, most likely when a hunter butchering a chimpanzee infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the precursor of HIV, became infected through a cut on his body. That event had probably happened hundreds of times in the past, perhaps even more. But Halperin argues that European efforts to exploit Africa’s vast resources of rubber, ivory and other materials provided a unique push to the virus. Porters toting their loads of precious cargo carried it across the previously uncharted jungles, allowing it to spread much more widely than before. Steamships plying the region’s rivers and the newly developed railroads allowed the virus to travel much faster than had ever been possible. European exploitation thus allowed the virus to escape its natural habitat. But Africans themselves shared much of the blame for the virus taking root, Halperin argues. Cultural norms in the region allowed men to have several wives, as well as multiple sexual partners outside of marriage. Those concurrent sexual relationships provided the tinderbox that allowed the spark of HIV to take full flame. Repeated analyses have shown, the authors argue, that AIDS became epidemic only in regions where the number of each person’s sexual partners was high, either in African villages or in the gay enclaves of San Francisco and other western cities. The primary exception to that is its spread among drug abusers, who use contaminated needles to inject themselves.

more from Thomas H. Maugh II at the LA Times here.