News / Africa

New Book Blames Colonialism for Spread of AIDS in Africa

Protestors demand free HIV/AIDS treatment for persons living with HIV in Abuja, Nigeria (Dec 5, 2005). (George Osodi / AP Photo)Protestors demand free HIV/AIDS treatment for persons living with HIV in Abuja, Nigeria (Dec 5, 2005). (George Osodi / AP Photo)
x
Protestors demand free HIV/AIDS treatment for persons living with HIV in Abuja, Nigeria (Dec 5, 2005). (George Osodi / AP Photo)
Protestors demand free HIV/AIDS treatment for persons living with HIV in Abuja, Nigeria (Dec 5, 2005). (George Osodi / AP Photo)
William Eagle
For European colonizers, Africa’s forests held the promise of untold riches – ivory, rubber and minerals. But unknown to the fortune seekers, those forests also held a virus that would claim over 30 million lives since the global spread of the HIV epidemic.

Craig Timberg and Dr. Daniel Halperin say European rule in Africa led to a number of social and economic changes that facilitated the spread of the virus. They're the authors of a new book on the origins of rearch of virus called Tinderbox:  How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It.

A man buys bush meat at a market in Yopougon, Abidjan, May 27, 2006.A man buys bush meat at a market in Yopougon, Abidjan, May 27, 2006.
x
A man buys bush meat at a market in Yopougon, Abidjan, May 27, 2006.
A man buys bush meat at a market in Yopougon, Abidjan, May 27, 2006.
​Halperin is a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina and until recently the Harvard School of Public Health. He also worked in AIDS-prevention programs in Africa under the administration of President George W. Bush.

The search for the virus

Timberg and Halperin write that genetic researchers have traced the origins of human immune deficiency virus (HIV) to the jungles of southeastern Cameroon.

Timberg, who is the former Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post, said researchers compared the most prevalent and deadliest form of HIV to SIV, simian immune-deficiency virus, found in local chimpanzees.  

He described their efforts at a recent lecture at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

"They set up collection stations across the range of where these chimps were in southern Cameroon and collected their waste,"  he explained.

"Chimp feces carried remnants of the virus, and they could compare the particular chimpanzee viruses to the dominant form of HIV," he said. "What they found [are areas where the viruses] are close at the genetic level, particularly in the southeastern corner [of Cameroon]. You almost can’t tell the chimp virus and dominant human virus from one another, they are so almost perfectly identical."

Timberg said even today, not many people live in southeastern Cameroon, an area with its dense jungles that's difficult to access. Through much of history, he said, there weren’t many opportunities for humans and chimps to interact.

Economic, cultural changes

That changed with the arrival of railways, roads and steamships. They carried goods from trading stations along Africa’s most powerful river, the Congo, and its tributaries reaching into the rainforests.

"African men and women became laborers, carrying goods back and forth from the jungles to pay colonial taxes," said Timberg. "Others were forced to work as porters. Local communities then, as today, killed chimps to sell as “bush meat.”  

Scientists say it’s likely the virus made the leap to humans when a hunter cut himself while handling an infected animal.  New transportation routes meant the hunter and the virus were no longer confined to a remote and sparsely populated area, where both were likely to eventually die.

Colonial postcard show steamship on Congo River (David Halperin)Colonial postcard show steamship on Congo River (David Halperin)
x
Colonial postcard show steamship on Congo River (David Halperin)
Colonial postcard show steamship on Congo River (David Halperin)
​"There is an old porter path that’s now a highway... a dirt road today, that came within about a mile of where the scientists collected the chimp waste that’s had the virus that’s virtually identical to the version of HIV that’s killed almost everybody who’s died of AIDS," explained Timberg,

Other elements were added to the “tinderbox” that would make a once-localized illness combust.

Changing customs made it easier to spread the virus.  The colonial powers discouraged polygamy, which medical anthropologists say tended to create what they call a “closed circuit” that tended to limit sex to married partners.  By contrast, younger generations under the influence of Christianity may have married a single partner, but also had ongoing relationships with others.  

Younger men also were less likely to participate in initiation rituals including circumcision, a widespread tradition in much of Africa that scientists have found largely protects men from HIV. The practice removes the foreskin of the penis, a vulnerable point of entry for the virus.

A growing urban population led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in densely populated Leopoldville, now Kinshasa.

"Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." (photo: Daniel Halperin)"Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." (photo: Daniel Halperin)
x
"Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." (photo: Daniel Halperin)
"Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It." (photo: Daniel Halperin)
"The historical record is clear," said Timberg.  "You have an explosion of STDs, things that were not a major problem before the Europeans arrived.  Suddenly they are at epidemic levels."

"The Belgian colonialists are actually complaining to each other, asking why are birth rates plummeting, how [they can] make a colonial economic machine without labor for from high birth rates," he said. "They thought it had to do with polygamy.  But it had to do with STDs – the women were sick.  What we now know is that HIV was one of the STDs moving about in that part of the world at a low level but in a persistent way for decades."

Timberg said with modern rail, ship and airlines, it was only a matter of time before the virus became widespread. Different subtypes moved toward East Africa and to Southern Africa. One made the leap across the Atlantic Ocean.

The leap to New World

Today, he said, scientists believe the introduction of the virus to the Americas probably happened in the 1960s and 1970s, through Haiti.

At the same time as Congolese independence, thousands of Haitians were fleeing the dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.  Some were officially encouraged to take part in a U.N.-sponsored program recruiting francophone professionals to serve in Congo, which lacked sufficient university-educated civil servants and civic leaders.

"The U.N. brings in French-speaking ex-patriots from Haiti and other countries as nurses, doctors, teachers and technocrats, " said Timberg.  "It looks very much as though one of them contracts HIV in Kinshasa, flies back to Haiti and every single strain of HIV they now contract in Europe or the Americas can be traced back to that single original infection in Haiti."

Haiti mapHaiti map
x
Haiti map
Haiti map
Five years ago,  a group of international scientists at the Fourteenth Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Los Angeles confirmed this theory.  They presented their conclusions based on genetic analysis of HIV samples.  They said the strain found in Haiti had probably been brought from Africa in 1966.  

Haiti was also center of blood donations shipped to the U.S. to make products for hemophiliacs.  And, it was a popular holiday destination for gay men from North America. It’s thought they probably facilitated the spread of the disease in the U.S. and Europe through anal sex.

Disproved allegations
 
Scientific research has disproved other theories of the origins of HIV, including the idea that it was spread mainly by mass inoculations for polio in the 1950s, in part through unclean syringes.  Timberg says the parts of Africa where the inoculations were performed do not have especially high rates of HIV infection.  This is in contrast to areas with low circumcision rates, which do.

Others say HIV was created by Western intelligence agencies or began in the gay community in San Francisco in the 1970s.  But tissue and blood samples kept by medical officials in Congo have been found to contain the virus in or around Kinshasa as early as 1959.   And, recent research puts the birth of the virus in the forests of Cameroon to about a century ago.

A few years ago, University of Arizona epidemiologist Michael Worobey traced HIV to the beginning of the 20th century. He created a genetic family tree for the virus by comparing two 50-year-old lab samples found in the Congolese capital. Timberg explains they had similar genetic structures, linking them to a common ancestor.

"For quite some years, there has been a piece of historical virus from 1959 Kinshasa [Leopoldville] in some old blood samples. What Michael Worobey did," explained Timberg, "was dig up a second piece of historic virus from the biopsy of lymph nodes of a woman living in Kinshasa in 1960."

A man, who did not want to be identified, lies in a ward that specializes in the treatment of Aids at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 1, 2005.A man, who did not want to be identified, lies in a ward that specializes in the treatment of Aids at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 1, 2005.
x
A man, who did not want to be identified, lies in a ward that specializes in the treatment of Aids at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 1, 2005.
A man, who did not want to be identified, lies in a ward that specializes in the treatment of Aids at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, Dec. 1, 2005.
​"Once you had two pieces of virus that old in the same basic time frame, you can then determine if they are very similar or not," said Timberg. "He determined they were dissimilar enough that they could not be from [a recent] ancestor: in fact, to get the mutations they could see in the genome, it had to have been many decades earlier. The time frame he put together from his research was from sometime between 1884 and 1924 [for] a common ancestor, a common virus, in the Congo River Basin that was the grandfather of all of this."

Understanding the origins of the virus and the environment in which it developed, say the authors, is essential to improving efforts to fight the epidemic.  They say the effects of colonialism can still be felt today – in solutions to the epidemic in Africa devised largely by the West.

They say curbing the spread of HIV on the continent should not rely solely on large sums of money and the latest biomedical tools.  The effort must also include an understanding of cultural subtleties and behaviors that can mean the success or failure of the war against the disease.

listen to report on "Tinderbox..." - a look at colonization and HIV/AIDS
listen to report on "Tinderbox..." - a look at colonization and HIV/AIDSi
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

You May Like

US Investors Eye IPO for China's Alibaba

E-commerce giant handled 80 percent of China's online business last year, logging more Internet transactions than US-based Amazon.com and eBay combined More

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

As cease-fire begins, Palestinians celebrate in streets; Israelis remain wary More

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

In treatment of a 12-year-old boy Chinese doctors used a 3-D printer and special software to create an exact replica of vertebra More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: JC from: New Zealand
July 22, 2012 2:38 AM
Colonisation didn't cause the disease, it may have speeded up its spread. But it will also provide the means of a cure. If colonisation had not occured, the tribes of Africa would be dying of AIDS with no idea what is happening, and no ability to stop it. It is pathetic that they blame the West, literally, for all of their ills.

In Response

by: mba from: nigeria
July 23, 2012 12:01 PM
In this a rare of globalization there is no need of passing the bulk all that is needed is to fight the scourge together because HIV and AIDS is here whether in Africa,West or New zealand.

In Response

by: Hugh7 from: New Zealand
July 23, 2012 4:43 AM
Halperin thinks he's "destined" to promote circumcision because of his descent from a ritual circumciser, so it's a worry that anyone who thinks so unscientifically is a lynchpin of the mad (colonialist) campaign to circumcise Africa, and there is NO evidence that colonisation led Africans to abandon circumcision, or that this has anything to do with the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 10 out 18 countries for which USAID has figures, more of the CIRCUMCISED men have HIV than the non-circumcised.

J

In Response

by: John Couper from: UK
July 22, 2012 7:22 PM
Thanks very much John Marston for that statement. I guess the JC dude doesn't know what he's talking about. Weather we like or not the West has to take some blame for Africa's problems

In Response

by: John Marston
July 22, 2012 1:12 PM
You are from New Zealand. You are not from the West. You are from a no-name island in the Pacific. This so-called West is truly only my country, the United States of America. Countries such as yours or those of Europe would be still in the Dark Ages if it wasn't for us. You yourself would be living in a third world country were it not for America, so don't go insulting other countries.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implanti
X
August 27, 2014 4:53 PM
A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. VOA News reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Northern California Quake: No Way to Know When Next One Will Hit

A magnitude 6.0 earthquake rocked northern California’s Napa Valley on Sunday. Roads twisted and water mains burst. It was the wine country’s most severe quake in 15 years, and while hospitals treated many people, no one was killed. Arash Arabasadi has more from Washington on what the future may hold for those residents living on a fault line.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ukraine: Captured Troops Proof of Russian Role in Separatist Fight

Ukrainian officials say they have captured Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory -- the latest accusation of Moscow's involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the Ukrainian side of the battle, where soldiers are convinced of Russia's role.
Video

Video Rubber May Soon Come From Dandelions

Synthetic rubber has been around for more than a century, but quality tires for cars, trucks and aircraft still need up to 40 percent or more natural rubber content. As the source of natural rubber, the rubber tree, is prone to disease and can be affected by bad weather. So scientists are looking for replacements. And as VOA’s George Putic reports, they may have found one in a ubiquitous weed.
Video

Video Jewish Life in Argentina Reflected in Yiddish Tango

Jewish people from across Europe and Russia have been immigrating to Argentina for hundreds of years. They brought with them dance music that were eventually mixed with Argentine tango. The result is Yiddish tango -- a fusion of melodies and cultural experiences that is still evolving today. Elizabeth Lee reports from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where one band is bringing Yiddish tango to an American audience.

AppleAndroid