AIDS: Why Africa suffers for the West’s sins

Craig Timberg talks about the colonial origins of AIDS and the legacy of distrust between Africa and the West

Published March 9, 2012 10:00PM (EST)

As a lens to explore the complex and deeply fraught relationship between Africa and the West, the AIDS epidemic is as revealing and disturbing as it gets. Born in colonial Africa and discovered in gay America, the devastating rise of AIDS has been fueled in no small part by the clash of cultures that played out over the past 130 years or so between Africa, Europe and the U.S. — and the rivers of resentment those conflicts have sown.

“Tinderbox,” an insightful new book from a journalist and an AIDS researcher, tells the story of the epidemic from its birth in colonial Congo — where it lingered undetected for decades — to its sudden spread around the globe in the 1980s, to its status today as the object of a global public health war directed from Washington and Geneva and targeting Africa, home to some 70 percent of all AIDS cases today.

Narrating this disturbing tale are Craig Timberg, former South Africa bureau chief for the Washington Post, and Daniel Halperin, an epidemiologist, AIDS researcher and former advisor to the U.S. government’s anti-AIDS program. Timberg met Halperin in the middle of his five-year stint as the Post’s Johannesburg bureau chief and the two began exploring questions that had bothered Timberg since his arrival in South Africa.

Timberg, now back in Washington as the Post’s deputy national security editor, spoke with Salon about the book.

Perceptions about the origins and spread of AIDS have changed over time in fascinating ways. First, it was seen as a gay disease. When it was detected in Africa, people assumed it came from the West. Over time, scientists showed it originated in Africa, a notion rejected by many Africans but in keeping with Western notions about third-world diseases. You show in the book that AIDS arose as a result of sweeping changes in social structure brought to Africa by European colonialism. Describe its origins.

Scientists have known for more than a decade that the version of HIV that has caused almost all cases of AIDS is virtually identical to a virus common in central African chimpanzees. That’s not controversial. The location of the transmission was determined by a group of scientists who narrowed it down to chimpanzees living in southeastern Cameroon by collecting their feces, detecting the virus and comparing it to other strains collected elsewhere. Michael Worobey from the University of Arizona and his team mapped the genetic structure of pieces of HIV from all over the world, looking at the extent of mutations between them. They were able to make assumptions about how many years it would have taken to produce these changes. The time frame puts you close to the turn of the 20th century for the original virus, the ancestor to all modern HIV.

How was the spread of AIDS to humans linked to colonialism?

In southeastern Cameroon, at the exact moment scientists now believe HIV entered the human population, you had steamships going up rivers that never had steamships before. You have porters who are virtually human pack animals carrying ivory or gear for colonial companies through dense forests. One of those porters would have been the first human to contract HIV. It looks like HIV goes from the chimp population into a hunter who cuts himself while butchering a chimpanzee for food. It then spreads in a localized way along these porter paths and colonial trading posts and eventually comes down river on a steamship into Kinshasa, then called Leopoldville, the first major city in that part of the world.

And that leads to what you call the Big Bang – when HIV explodes and moves out of the Congo.

That’s right. A single spark emanating from southeastern Cameroon works its way to colonial Leopoldville. But HIV doesn’t spread fast on its own. It needs particular conditions to race through a population and Leopoldville had them. It was big and growing fast. It had a high concentration of men working in factories, separated from their wives and girlfriends. It had an emerging population of sex workers and transport to get people back and forth. Gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia spread like wildfire; HIV doesn’t but starts to spread along railroad lines, porter paths and rivers during the early and middle part of the 20th century. When scientists look at the genetic structures of different types of HIV they all seem to have come from a single piece of ancestral HIV that existed in Leopoldville at the beginning of the 20th century.

So HIV lingered in small numbers of people but doesn’t exit this area. When researchers go back to blood samples collected during the 1976 outbreak of Ebola virus, they find HIV.

Yes, so in the middle part of the 20th century about 1 percent of adults in major population centers of the Congo had HIV. Before they died, they developed symptoms of other familiar maladies—pneumonia, tuberculosis, wasting. It wasn’t obvious there was a new epidemic loose in the land until gay men in the United States started getting sick in the early 1980s. Before that, it didn’t spread far and it didn’t spread fast. The reason seems to be that in colonial Congo, the majority of adult men would have been circumcised and circumcised men are much less likely to contract HIV and pass it on. It’s only when HIV makes its way out of the Congo River basin to other places more hospitable to its spread that we get a true explosion.

Many people assume AIDS must be a disease of poverty. But you argue that wealth, modern transportation and economic development were key factors that allowed AIDS to break out.

When I first went to Africa as a correspondent in 2004, I carried this question with me: Why is HIV so severe in some places and not in others? Logic said: Africa, poverty, poor medical systems — there had to be a connection. But when I started traveling to different countries I discovered that most truly outrageous hellholes — places with warfare and incredible poverty — didn’t have much HIV. Other places with modern transport and sophisticated economies had a lot. When I met my co-author, Daniel Halperin, it began to come together. I saw that while being poor and having HIV is certainly a very bad thing because you’re more likely to die when you can’t afford medicine, some degree of economic activity actually makes you more vulnerable. When the epidemic starts spreading widely in some African societies it’s in the cities. Wealthier people — doctors, teachers, politicians, singers — get HIV in completely disastrous numbers. Some of that has to do with access to resources and multiple sexual partners.

You begin with a chapter on the city of Francistown, Botswana, an affluent place with a horrendous HIV rate. What struck you about Francistown?

I drove to Francistown for the first time in 2006 and it felt like driving into anywhere, USA. I could buy a hamburger at Wimpy’s, order a shot of espresso. There were cafes and ATMs. Yet it had this horrendous HIV rate. Among women in their 30s, two-thirds were infected. The picture of poverty before HIV didn’t add up. When you scratch the surface you begin to realize that other factors — human movement, transport, sexual behavior, circumcision or lack of it — are decisive in how the virus spread.

You describe the AIDS belt, an area in southern Africa at the very heart of the African epidemic. What are the characteristics that made it, as you call it, a tinderbox?

There’s a giant swath of the continent that starts at the southern end of Sudan, goes down through east Africa to South Africa and out to the sea where you have this combination of sexual networks and low rates of male circumcision. Together they produce the tinderbox. Two centuries ago most of Africa had polygamous societies in which the richest, most powerful men had multiple wives. In contemporary Africa, in part because of that tradition and in part because of the ravages of colonialism and migratory labor, many men and women have more than one sexual partner over the course of a week or month. But to be part of the AIDS belt, you need one more thing: low rates of male circumcision. The people who migrated down the Nile River basin from Sudan never had circumcision as part of their tradition. In the southern part of the continent, it was a tradition pretty much everywhere until about 200 years ago when some ethnic groups began to give it up. In those places you see HIV rates of 10, 15, even 25 percent.

Why is circumcision effective and why was early evidence of its power missed?

A man’s foreskin is unusually vulnerable to HIV; the skin is thinner, softer and more easily penetrated by HIV and other pathogens. When it’s removed, the remaining skin is rougher and more resistant to infection. That makes no difference if you’re a gay man who is the receptive partner in anal sex. But the African epidemic is spread predominantly through heterosexual sex, particularly vaginal sex, and circumcision is crucial. Circumcised men are at least 70 percent less likely to get HIV. This science first began to appear in the mid-1980s.

That’s three decades ago!

That’s right. That data seemed to offer this miraculous new insight. But the global public health community was deeply uncomfortable with the subject. It took another 20 years to come up with evidence so definitive they accepted it. Peter Piot, one of the central characters in the AIDS response, was part of that research team. Yet during all the years he was head of UNAIDS he was not enthusiastic about this science. To be fair, establishing correlation is not the same as establishing causality. And it’s a pretty serious thing to contemplate altering men’s penises if you’re the global health community.

One area of culture clash between global health agencies and Africa is over condoms. What happened?

People who had watched AIDS in the U.S. were mindful of the way condoms seemed to slow the spread of HIV there and especially in Thailand, where the epidemic was transmitted mainly in brothels. It was hard for those officials to understand how different the African epidemics were. In several places, Africans were saying, “Hey, our best chance for surviving is for people to have fewer sex partners at a time.” But Westerners had condoms on their minds. The U.S. government and other organizations made a huge bet on condoms and reasoned that if you could just get enough of them to people in vulnerable places you could reverse the epidemic. Instead, reported usage of condoms in some African societies went to rates far higher than anywhere else but HIV also went up. That puzzled people until it became clear that people were using condoms with prostitutes or one-night stands but not in long-term relationships with their husbands, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends. And that’s how HIV is most likely to spread.

Uganda emerged in the early days of the epidemic as a place that took effective action, changed people’s behavior and lowered HIV transmission. 

In 1986 a new government took over and confronted the facts of AIDS. They knew it was fatal, they knew it was incurable, they knew it was spread by sex, and they knew a lot of people already had it. So political, religious and cultural leaders focused on changing the sexual behavior that was at the core of HIV’s spread. The most famous terms for this was zero grazing, a metaphor that worked well in an overwhelmingly agrarian society. When leaders said zero grazing, Ugandans understood at an intuitive level that having sex with your primary partner is much safer than having sex with a primary partner and others. If a large number of people make a relatively small change in their number of sex partners it can make a massive difference in the spread of HIV. That’s what happened in Uganda and hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

Why were the powers that be in global health so reluctant to focus on behavior change?

The global health infrastructure was uncomfortable talking about differences in sexual behavior. That’s a shame because a sexually transmitted epidemic is by definition spread by sex. To understand why it’s worse in some places than others you have to dive into some inherently uncomfortable questions about a very private matter.

Yet there was historical evidence here that changing behavior made a difference. San Francisco closed the bathhouses and it helped. In New York, behavior changes led to lower rates of anal gonorrhea in the early days of the epidemic.

Those changes were instituted within coherent communities. Gay men advocated the closing of bathhouses and made the choice to have fewer partners or use condoms. In Africa that process was hampered by the slowness to accept that AIDS was real and the fact that people are understandably resistant to being told what to do by a large and powerful outside force. Many of these societies need our financial aid, our technical assistance to do things that matter to them, including improving public health. The tension over how much to listen to outsiders while not wanting to be told what to do has troubling consequences that have infused the world’s response to AIDS in all sorts of ways.

What lessons do you draw from the way the epidemic has been addressed in Africa?

The overriding lesson is that sex matters. Those of us who care about people getting this terrible disease can’t be squeamish in discussing sexual behavior because we’re afraid of how it makes us look. The research has to be good, the messaging has to be forceful and clear. It’s not enough to tell people to use condoms all the time because the evidence after more than 30 years is that people don’t, not often enough to be truly decisive. We also have to be willing to engage in questions about how many partners people are having, we need to tell people that from the viewpoint of sexually transmitted infections, anal sex is more dangerous than vaginal or oral sex. These things are uncomfortable to talk about. At the same time, if we take seriously the moral question of trying to prevent as many infections as we can, we can’t be frightened of these subjects.

By Rob Waters

Rob Waters writes about health, mental health and science from his home in Berkeley, California. His investigative feature in Mother Jones, “Medicating Aliah,” examined pharmaceutical industry influence over prescribing guidelines and won the Casey Award in 2006. His articles have appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Mother Jones, Health, Reader’s Digest and other publications.

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