cover image Tinderbox: 
How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It

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

Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin. Penguin Press, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-1-59420-327-5

This absorbing interdisciplinary study of HIV/AIDS explores how the West inadvertently unleashed the AIDS epidemic and then failed to combat it effectively, especially in the most vulnerable regions in Africa. Drawing on the latest genetic research, Washington Post reporter Timberg and Harvard epidemiologist and medical anthropologist Halperin trace the disease’s origins in the Cameroonian jungle, where HIV’s transmission from chimps to humans coincided with the rapacious period of colonial expansion as the quest for rubber sap and ivory created new transportation networks (porter paths, steamship lines, airstrips, and highways), along which the disease traveled, and a large, hectic colonial city (Leopoldville; now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Africa’s susceptibility, the authors suggest, was partly due to changing social customs. For example, Christian missionaries discouraged rituals such as male circumcision, now known to significantly reduce the spread of HIV. As the Western powers (namely the U.N. AIDS program and President George W. Bush’s initiative) poured money into combating the spread of AIDS, they favored biomedical approaches (shots, pills, HIV testing, condom promotion) and ignored potentially life-saving African initiatives, such as modifying sexual behavior and male circumcision. Highlighting the politics of AIDS, where there were powerful incentives to work within the conventional wisdom to win lucrative government contracts, this timely exposé advocates practical solutions to a seemingly intractable problem. (Mar.)