Part 4: The Virus, Past and Future

There Are Two AIDS Epidemics—and More May Be Coming

They also lack basic hygienic protection such as gloves. When animals are butchered and dressed, blood spatters on the hunters' skin. Scientists speculate that the virus could pass into them through cuts or sores. But the hunters drinking palm wine are not convinced. "We've been eating chimps and monkeys for years and years, and never had anyone get sick from AIDS," says Lazare Ampomadjimi. "So it can't be true."

Everywhere, people have theories on how AIDS began. "The average Cameroonian will tell you it all started in L.A. with the gay community," says Zekeng, "or they'll tell you it's a virus Americans produced for biological warfare." In Senegal, Sara Sagne, the leader of a traditional healing cooperative, offers probably the most poetic theory. He believes that after diseased dogs urinate, a flame rises that chars the earth and leaves a foul stench. A person who smells the odor can get AIDS. But this is no more fanciful than University of California professor Peter Duesberg's idea that AIDS is not caused by HIV but by drug abuse, and even by the AIDS drug AZT.

In fact, the same methodology that helped scientists determine that the flu virus comes from pigs and ducks has convinced most of them that HIV comes from chimpanzees. Says Zekeng: "When I look at the phylogenetic analysis"—a comparison of DNA that reveals how closely related organisms are—"there's no doubt about it." The human and chimp AIDS viruses, he says, "really cluster together."

Karakoula Bertheloise, shown here with his wife, is a hunter in the Cameroon rainforest. He hunts whatever game he can, including monkeys and apes.
photo: Mark Schoofs
Karakoula Bertheloise, shown here with his wife, is a hunter in the Cameroon rainforest. He hunts whatever game he can, including monkeys and apes.

Another reason to believe that the virus originated in Africa is that the continent is home to a greater variety of HIV strains than anywhere else. An organism's greatest genetic diversity generally lies in its home region, since strains that leave the motherland represent only a fraction of the whole, just one or two lineages. Then, too, chimpanzees live in the Central African region where the first AIDS cases were found. Finally, chimps appear not to get sick from their strain of SIV, suggesting that they and their virus have co-evolved. (Hahn is trying to crack the mystery of why infected chimps stay healthy, which could lead to treatments for people.)

Yet, sensitive from centuries of white stereotypes, many Africans view the theory that HIV came from apes as just another smear against "the dark continent." Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi denounced the out-of-Africa theory as "a new form of hate campaign," according to Laurie Garrett's book The Coming Plague. Earlier this year, Zekeng refused to have his picture taken by a New York daily because "I could see their front page covered with monkeys." He has another fear: "journalists who point their camera and say, 'These black Africans are the ones who originated HIV.' Now, let's imagine you and I are neighbors—what will be your reaction after seeing that show? If my child comes over to play with yours? How will you treat him? It feeds into racism."

Many ordinary Africans point out that the disease was first found in white gay men half a world away, so how could Africa be the source? But given the long lag between HIV infection and disease, the ease of international travel, and the industrialized world's medical surveillance system, it is perfectly plausible that HIV could have first come to attention far from its source. Edward Mbidde, a leading Ugandan AIDS researcher, says flatly, "It's not bigoted to say the virus originated in Africa."

Yet the way the theory gets communicated can be shockingly racist. Peter Piot, now director of the United Nations AIDS program, UNAIDS, remembers the first world AIDS conference in 1985. There were only three African scientists, all from French-speaking Zaire, and Piot was their translator. The theory that HIV had emerged from simians was announced at the conference, and an American reporter rushed up to the African scientists, asking, "Is it true that Africans have sex with monkeys?" Piot gleefully translated the answer: "No, but I have heard that Americans have sex with dogs."

Today, it is the insinuation of cannibalism that contaminates the science. In the most recent media flurry on HIV's origin, a major player was Swiss photographer and eco-activist Karl Ammann. Eleven years ago Ammann bought a baby chimp from a hunter who had killed its mother. Childless, Ammann says the chimp aroused his "fathering instinct," and today the animal sleeps together with him and his wife. A former hotel marketing director, Ammann has been trying to spotlight how the bush-meat business is wiping out the great apes. Then he heard about Hahn's research. Sensing a golden opportunity, he provided her with his deliberately shocking photographs that would make her audience groan with disgust.

In his home in Kenya—a 15-acre estate staffed by black servants—Ammann all but blames Africans for spawning AIDS. Explaining his media strategy, he says, "The average Westerner hears so much about Africa's problems, they're sick and tired of it: 'So a bunch of Africans eat a bunch of monkeys, why should I care?' But if that particular practice has brought him AIDS, he has to now change his lifestyle. Because of the lifestyle in Africa of people eating monkeys he has to now wear a condom."

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