How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It

Book - 2012
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In this groundbreaking narrative, longtime Washington Post reporter 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 pandemic and the best ways to fight it today.

Recent genetic studies have traced the birth of HIV to the forbidding equatorial forests of Cameroon, where chimpanzees carried the virus for millennia without causing a major outbreak in humans. During the Scramble for Africa, 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 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--abstinence campaigns, condom promotion, 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 narrative that stretches from colonial Leopoldville to 1980s San Francisco to South Africa today, Tinderbox reveals how human hands unleashed this epidemic and can now overcome it, if only we learn the lessons of the past.

Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, c2012.
ISBN: 9781594203275
Branch Call Number: 614. 599392 TIM
Characteristics: 421 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
Additional Contributors: Halperin, Daniel


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Aug 22, 2012

Very entertainingly written, but I soon noticed something bizarre about this book. It has two authors, yet uses the third person to gush admiringly on the work of a Dr. Halperin. I double-checked the cover to see if that was the same Halperin listed as author. It was! This is NOT disinterested journalism. It is advocacy - an impassioned argument for circumcision, that does not look at contrary evidence (of which there is plenty, but you will not find it here). Dr. Halperin, who is Jewish, was a circumcision advocate before ever going to Africa and latching onto the HIV argument. I was expecting balance, and a critical evaluation of all the evidence. Instead I found faith disguised as science.

May 02, 2012

There is no denying writer Craig Timberg's writing skills and Tinderbox reads like an exciting work of fiction that's chock full of the colourful adventures of our hero Halperin, out to slay AIDS.

Sometimes Halperin is depicted as an ace reporter/ cab driver, waiting outside a San Francisco bathhouse with the meter running, while his HIV wasted customer runs inside to get his rocks off. Elsewhere he's a Jewish Mother Teresa, tenderly caring for AIDS victims.

Many of these stories have the ring of the tall tale, so full of the atmospheric details that only appear in fiction.

Tinderbox also reads like a romance novel but this is no classical love story. The passion here is entirely genitally focused on the circumcision of the African male, something Halperin is extremely enthusiastic about. Every third page waxes euphorically about Halperin's not-so-secret obsession, under the strictly scientific guise, of course, of fighting HIV. When describing a mobile medical team heading out to the Kenyan countryside to provide their circumcision services Sade comes on the radio singing "Smooth Operator."

The old "C" of the ABC's of fighting HIV was "condoms" but that was so last year. The new fashion "C" is circumcision! While our book hero Halperin demures from claiming any excitement, his enthusiasm for male circumcision spills out every few pages.

The three so-called studies that claim a 60% reduction in transmission of AIDS, from women to their circumcised male partners have been soundly questioned by scholars, with the real efficacy rate of circumcision perhaps at just over 1%. Genital cutting to prevent HIV is based on junk science but such pesky details won't keep our hero from his quest.

Perhaps one day we'll see Hollywood re-imagine this story as a comedy starring Adam Sandler as Halperin. In the meantime I'm with those who would prefer a more scholarly approach to dealing with AIDS.

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