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

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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 ...

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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
New Yorker
Remarkable...well written and thoughtful, and sometimes reads like a detective novel. The authors have clearly done important research and have brought together amazing stories, bits of history, and scientific perspectives.
Library Journal
Journalist Timberg (deputy national security editor & former Johannesburg bureau chief, Washington Post) and epidemiologist and medical anthropologist Halperin (health behavior & health education, Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) have written a first-person account of the horrific AIDS epidemic in southern Africa. Their narrative is a compassionate and persuasive argument for new approaches to AIDS prevention. The social and economic legacies of colonialism, they argue, are at the root of southern Africa's uniquely high AIDS infection rates. Christian missionaries and colonial officials discouraged indigenous polygamous and circumcision practices. The hidden heritage of polygamy results in high rates of sex outside of marriage, and areas where circumcision isn't routinely performed have AIDS rates 50 percent higher than areas where it is. Timberg and Halperin argue that dealing frankly but sensitively with these cultural issues is the key to developing workable strategies to lower the rate of new AIDS cases, which remain disturbingly high in spite of the widespread use of life-saving drugs to treat existing infections. VERDICT A compelling account of the ravages of the southern African AIDS epidemic and its heroes, villains, and missed opportunities. General readers, social scientists, and public health experts will find much to ponder.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL
Library Journal
Carried harmlessly for centuries by the chimpanzees of Cameroon, the HIV virus was unleashed when colonialists plowed their way through previously untraveled reaches of Africa, escalating human-animal contact. Today, argue Timberg, former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Washington Post, and Harvard AIDS researcher Halperin, Western attitudes are still hurting the effort to combat AIDS in Africa. Important.
Kirkus Reviews
Timberg, the former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Washington Post and current deputy national security editor, and Halperin, an epidemiologist and AIDS expert at Harvard, trace the history, growth and spread of HIV and present what will in the minds of many be a controversial approach to addressing the disease. Although the subtitle sounds vaguely conspiratorial, the authors crisply chronicle the origins of AIDS from chimpanzees in West Africa and follow the perhaps shockingly slow spread of HIV across the African continent and to the rest of the world. The key factor in the spread of the disease was the expansion of European colonialism in Africa, which took a virus that otherwise may well have died off and instead created the conditions by which, decades later, it would become a scourge in many parts of the world. But European colonial-era malfeasance is not the only issue at work in this book. In addition to a useful history of the disease, Timberg and Halperin examine how to confront it and develop more effective ways to fight it. If Western imperialism is to blame for the initial proliferation of HIV/AIDS, Western arrogance and the unintended consequences of good intentions may well have prevented adequate treatment. While Western health advocates have supported abstinence campaigns and condom use, the authors argue that homegrown initiatives hold more promise than many Westerners have been willing to acknowledge, and that new research on the importance of sexual behavior and male circumcision is central to developing a coherent approach going forward. Timberg and Halperin may ruffle feathers with some of their unorthodox views, but they present a forceful case with which future students of HIV and AIDS will have to reckon.
The New Yorker
"Remarkable . . . well-written and thoughtful, and sometimes reads like a detective novel. The authors have clearly done important research and have brought together amazing stories, bits of history, and scientific perspectives.”
Salon.com
“An insightful new book from a journalist and an AIDS researcher, tells the story of the epidemic from its birth in colonial Africa . . . to its status today as the object of a global public health war.”
The Nation
“Careful scientific detective work.”
Booklist
“An essential and engrossing read, Timberg and Halperin’s sweeping work covers AIDS from its origins . . . to its impact on the world today. . . . Extensively researched, eminently readable and accessible, Timberg and Halperin’s work is a notable and invaluable addition to the AIDS canon.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203275
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/1/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.94 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Craig Timberg is the former Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post. From his position, he visited twenty-three African nations  and penned dozens of major stories about AIDS. He is now The Washington Post's deputy national security editor.
Daniel Halperin, PhD, is an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has taught at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He was a top technical adviser in the US government's PEPFAR program to combat AIDS.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 31, 2012

    It's a well known fact that circumcision has been a cure in sear

    It's a well known fact that circumcision has been a cure in search of a disease in the US for well over a century. Halperin has made a career of attempting to promote circumcision as a cure all and this book is no exception to that rule. Independent studies show that one in five new African HIV infections are caused by surgical intervention using non sterile instruments. African men were not given informed consent prior to their circumcision and indeed most were left to believe that they could forgo using a condom if they were circumcised. These unethical practices smack of cultural imperialism and racism and have done more harm to African society and wasted millions of dollars that could have been directed to programs that work, counseling, medication and supplying condoms and clean water. This book belongs in the trash for pushing a harmful and biased agenda.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2012

    It's an old saw that circumcision prevents HIV. Halperin fails t

    It's an old saw that circumcision prevents HIV. Halperin fails to disclose his religious bias in his promotion of circumcision. Halperin's grandfather was a mohel, or a rabbi specially trained in circumcision. Halperin was a strong advocate of circumcision before his "research."

    The United States has the highest circumcision rate for males of sexually active age, yet also has the highest HIV rate for developed countries. Explain that one Haperin!

    Halperin also seems to have a fascination in surgically reducing the penises of poor black African men. Why don't we have a psychotherapist research his obsession, I would love to read that book.

    Halperin probably wrote this book so his students at John Hopkins would have to buy it for their classes. $$$$$$$$$$$$

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2012

    Great book!

    The writer does a great job of presenting clear readable information on the plight of Africa in regard to HIV . He combines real people with the facts in a way thatis easy to understand.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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