It sounds like a scene out of the 1995 film "Outbreak," but authors Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin are touting some real-life evidence that pinpoints where the AIDS epidemic began.
Their theory, that AIDS was driven by the colonization of Africa a century ago, is the topic of a book called Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, which is slated to be published by The Penguin Press this month.
Timberg and Halperin detail some of their findings in an excerpt of their book on The Washington Post, tracing the journey of a strain of HIV, called HIV-1 group M, from chimpanzee-to-human transmission in southeastern Cameroon to widespread infection in the trading capital of Kinshasa.
We now know where the epidemic began: a small patch of dense forest in southeastern Cameroon. We know when: within a couple of decades on either side of 1900. We have a good idea of how: A hunter caught an infected chimpanzee for food, allowing the virus to pass from the chimp’s blood into the hunter’s body, probably through a cut during butchering.
The researchers contend that as European powers sought to dominate Africa and Asia from the 1880s to the 1920s the HIV virus gradually spread through trade and disease routes.
For decades nobody knew the reasons behind the birth of the AIDS epidemic. But it is now clear that the epidemic’s birth and crucial early growth happened during Africa’s colonial era, amid massive intrusion of new people and technology into a land where ancient ways still prevailed. European powers engaged in a feverish race for wealth and glory blazed routes up muddy rivers and into dense forests that had been traveled only sporadically by humans before.
Without the rapid colonization of Africa by European powers known as the "Scramble for Africa," Timberg and Halperin say that it’s hard to see how HIV could have made it out of southeastern Cameroon to eventually kill tens of millions of people.
In December 2010, the World Health Organization place the number of people living with HIV at 34 million worldwide. According to the CDC, 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection and 1 in 5 are unaware of their infection.
Read the full excerpt from Tinderbox, including more of Timberg and Halperin's findings, here.