We are unlikely to ever know all the details of the birth of the AIDS epidemic. But a series of recent genetic discoveries have shed new light on it, starting with the moment when a connection from chimp to human changed the course of history.
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.
As to the why, here is where the story gets even more fascinating, and terrible. We typically think of diseases in terms of how they threaten us personally. But they have their own stories. Diseases are born. They grow. They falter, and sometimes they die. In every case these changes happen for reasons.
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.
The most disruptive of these intruders were thousands of African porters. Forced into service by European colonial powers, they cut paths through the exact area that researchers have now identified as the birthplace of the AIDS epidemic. It was here, in a single moment of transmission from chimp to human, that a strain of virus called HIV-1 group M first appeared.
It was here, by accident but with motives by no means pure, that the world built a tinderbox and tossed in a spark.
So HIV’s first journey looked something like this: A hunter killed an infected chimp in the southeastern Cameroonian forest, and a simian virus entered his body through a cut during the butchering, mutating into HIV.
This probably had happened many times before, during the centuries when the region had little contact with the outside world. But now thousands of porters — both men and women — were crossing through the area regularly, creating more opportunities for the virus to travel onward to a riverside trading station such as Moloundou.
One of the first victims — whether a hunter, a porter or an ivory collector — gave HIV to a sexual partner. There may have been a small outbreak around the trading station before the virus found its way aboard a steamship headed down the Sangha River.
For this fateful journey south, HIV could have ridden in the body of these first victims, or it could have been somebody infected later: a soldier or a laborer. Or it could have been carried by a woman: a concubine, a trader.
It’s also possible that the virus moved down the river in a series of steps, maybe from Moloundou to Ouesso, then onward to Bolobo on the Congo River itself.
There might even have been a series of infections at trading towns along the entire route downriver. Yet even within these riverside trading posts HIV would have struggled to create anything more than a short-lived, localized outbreak.
Most of this colonial world didn’t have enough potential victims for such a fragile virus to start a major epidemic. HIV is harder to transmit than many other infections. People can have sex hundreds of times without passing the virus on. To spread widely, HIV requires a population large enough to sustain an outbreak and a sexual culture in which people often have more than one partner, creating networks of interaction that propel the virus onward.
To fulfill its grim destiny, HIV needed a kind of place never before seen in Central Africa but one that now was rising in the heart of the region: a big, thriving, hectic place jammed with people and energy, where old rules were cast aside amid the tumult of new commerce.
I think it’s [the AIDS fight] the most important and most pressing one – I think it’s a global emergency and I think in a way we all have to address it and engage with it because I think it’s the biggest threat to the human race that we have ever faced.
Once upon a time in Africa there was no such a thing as an orphan. In fact, there is really no word for “orphan” in African languages, to define an orphan one has to resort to circumlocutions: a child without a mother and father. Even if both mother and father died being an orphan in our sense was all but inconceivable because there was always an older brother or sister, uncle or aunt, or some other relative no matter how distant who would be willing to take in such children.
AIDS has changed all of that, now there truly are orphans, children who have no close or distant relative to take them in. Many of them depend on the only family that they know, the priests and religious of the Church who are striving to straining point to take them in and care for them. AIDS is not just a cruel disease, but a cause of possibly permanent social disruption, the likes of which, Africa has never known.
“I believe that this could very well be looked back on as the sin of our generation…I believe that our children and their children, 40 or 50 years from now, are going to ask me, what did you do while 40 million children became orphans in Africa? “
My name is Kevina Luboma. I am 14 years old. I have 4 brothers and 3 sisters younger than me. I come from Uganda. I am studying in Primary…….I have come here to say something about AIDS and its problems.
AIDS means acquired immune-deficiency syndrome. It’s a terrible disease. It killed both my mother and father in 1992. It killed all brothers and sisters of my father. It has killed many men and women in Uganda.
Some houses have been closed. But our house was not closed because my father and mother left me with four brothers and two sisters. I look after them. I also look after my grandfather who lives near us, because his wife died and nobody was there to look after him. He is 84 years old. He lost his wife in 1992. The grandfather does not see. He has eye problems. It is me who looks after the family.
From school, I go to bring water from the well. I take a jerrican on my head. I tell my brothers and sisters to go in the bush and collect firewood. Sometimes, when we don’t have fire, we go and get it from our neighbours. We cook potatoes, matooke, pumpkins and casava. But my brothers do not want cassava; they want only matooke. Our banana plantation is now a forest. We dig in our plantation on holidays and on Saturday. Our food is not enough. Some days we don’t get food. We eat cassava with boiled water as sauce. We don’t have money to buy sugar or tea leaves.
In the evening I make up beds for my young sisters and brothers. Every week we cut grass to use as our mattresses. We all sleep together and cover ourselves with blankets. Sometimes we sleep in the corner of the house because our house is leaking. Our blankets get wet and we put them near the fire or in the sun to dry.
There is the problem of disease. We get sick and go to the dispensary. At the dispensary they want money but we don’t have the money. They give only tablets. We foot from home to the dispensary. You cannot stop a car because they also want money. Old women help us and give us leaves and mululuza to chew. This helps to get rid of fever.
Because I am a girl people think I am weak. So they come home and steal our cassava and fire wood. Because I am a girl even when I see them I can do nothing. Some people in the village are not friends. They shout at us, they don’t give us advice; we don’t have any one to call father or mother; we feel sad when we see other children laughing with their father and mother. In short, this is how I find life.
But other orphans have the same life. They don’t have blankets; they don’t eat meat; they don’t have sugar; they sleep in huts.. Some go to eat at the neighbors or they get one meal a day. At school, life is good. The teacher calls us orphans, but I don’t want that name. Even other children don’t want that name. We think we are animals.
My friends, I am concluding by saying that the life of an orphan in Uganda is bad. Some people want us to work as their house girls and house boys. Now we want good food, blankets, education and many other things. We also want to live in good houses. So orphans need help. We need to grow and to be proud and happy people.
Let me stop here. Thank you very much.
“AIDS destroys families, decimates communities and, particularly in the poorest areas of the world, threatens to destabilize the social, cultural, and economic fabric of entire nations…”
Orphanages were once unknown in Africa and missionaries used to build schools for children, they are now building or converting schools into orphanages. Visit one of these orphanages and see how these tiny children cling to you, it breaks your heart.
“Children have their own world. For us it is
small, for them it is everything.”
Africa is the continent that has been affected the most by HIV/AIDS over the past 30 years. Surpassing malaria, AIDS is the number one killer in sub-Saharan Africa, taking the lives of over one and a half million people every year. The causes are ample and the cure remains a hope that has yet to be found. You can help with this…..
You can make a difference in the lives of the children of Africa. Poverty is common in East Africa. Many children become orphans due to AIDS or other diseases. There is an AIDS epidemic engulfing much of Africa. In some countries of Africa it is estimated 40% of the working-age population has contracted HIV, with younger and more successful workers being most likely to be affected. The worst affected countries include Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.
People talk of AIDS in Africa, but Africa is a diverse continent, and different regions have been attempting to tackle AIDS in different ways, some with positive effect, while others seemingly making little progress.
An epidemic occurs when a disease or virus spreads so much that a large number of the population is infected. The AIDS virus can be considered an epidemic. In fact, it can even be considered a pandemic.
Although Africa has the highest population of people with AIDS, this disease can be found in even the farthest reaches of the human population of Earth. All in all, there are over 33 million people in the world who are infected with the virus, and without proper education and medication, that number will continue to grow. Over two million people have died from complications of the illness. As you can see, this is a very terrible and deadly epidemic. It claims human lives every day, including children.
“Young people were once considered relatively safe from HIV/AIDS. “Today, their lives and futures are at risk throughout the world because of this disease. I believe it is young people throughout the world who offer us the greatest hope for defeating this deadly pandemic.”
Let me tell you about a woman named Veronica and her newborn daughter. Veronica’s baby looks calm and alert, loose curls framing her face. Her long fingers curl under a chin tucked into a soft, fringed blanket.
Beyond the blanket, the baby’s world looks much less secure. Her mother’s dejected hands barely keep her from sliding off her blue cotton lap. Her mother’s face is lowered, eyes avoiding the camera, and avoiding her daughter. Her mother’s forehead is concentrated in a confused frown.
Clearly unhappy about having her photo taken, Veronica seems resigned to this intrusion only because she doesn’t know how to make it go away.
According to the newspaper story, the baby was conceived when Veronica was raped, and infected with HIV, in an AIDS cleansing ritual in western Kenya. Veronica’s baby, yet unnamed, will be affected by AIDS her entire life.
The reasons for AIDS being as prevalent as it is in Africa are many. However, the underlying concern is simply that many of the population do not have access to receive proper care. A weakened economic state can not provide for the proper measures of health care to all of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, the means to provide for proper methods of restricted the spread of the virus are also quite apparent; the numbers and previous examples will continue to show that spread of AIDS in Africa is bound to continue unless the appropriate measures are taken to educate and treat the people of Africa. The impact of the AIDS epidemic in Africa can not simply be measured by death tolls; the impacts have a much broader effect on the entire population.
“Can we watch one-quarter of some countries’ people die? Can 27 million orphans be left to fend for themselves? We may not be able to solve the entire problem today, but let us not be discouraged from taking the steps necessary to begin the journey. “
One family can make a difference in an African life, an African family, an African village.
One thousand families can help a country.
One hundred thousand families can help save a continent.
How you can help AIDS affected children and families
Now you know more about the problems of AIDS in Africa and wondered whether you can really make a difference. We think that you can.
One way to help AIDS affected families is to make a small, regular commitment to a charity that has a long history working in Africa.
Domestic commitment and international support are critical to saving Africa’s next generation.
Prevention programs and necessities for children are very costly and every little bit helps make a difference in the life of a child.
Eventually this problem can be reversed through education and improvement of lives of current orphans in Africa, and your donation, regardless of size can help.
By giving a charity donation or becoming a sponsor for a boy or girl in need, you will help give a disadvantaged child care, education and a future.
I don’t claim to have all the solutions, but I do know that if girls and boys received quality education and knew that there would be opportunities for decent jobs in their adult futures; and if women felt empowered to stand up to men; and if there were more ways for people to access nutritious food and be economically self-sufficient, we would be a lot further in tackling the AIDS pandemic in a holistic and sustainable way.
But no singular approach is sufficient for the magnitude of this disease. Without simultaneously working to uplift the community with empowering opportunities such as education, income-generation, and sustainable agriculture, all the billions of dollars from government and private donor funds will not be as effective as they need to be.
AIDS in Africa may seem like a never ending world problem, but if something like basic awareness can reduce the spread by 50% it seems that the country and others in Africa are finally taking charge. But there is still much to be done. One important thing the country needs is to produce a new generation of Africans that are healthy, provided for and well-educated.
It doesn’t take much to help! Can you donate today?
History will judge us on how we respond to the Aids emergency in Africa…..whether we stood around with watering cans and watched while a whole continent burst into flames…….or not.
If you would like to support the work of SPANS you may do so.
Decide on an amount for your donation–and whether this will be a one time, monthly or yearly donation.The money goes towards supplies, food, tools and resources such as HIV education
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.
I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”