The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin

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Scene from the movie "Belle"

book review.

The first officially documented AIDS cases surfaced in the United States in 1981. With that epidemic started the quest for AIDS’ origins and for a cure. More than three decades later, a cure is not yet in sight, but the image of the cradle of AIDS, its time and place defined, has come into new focus, as have the trails the virus first took in its worldwide onslaught.

There are several theories surrounding the origins of AIDS, some more controversial than others. The widely accepted theories involve a few common factors: Africa as the birthplace of the pandemic; a monkey hunter as its Patient Zero; a virus that jumped species from a chimp to a human and then to tens of millions of individuals.

While many books capture various facets of AIDS after its impact on the mainstream community, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On offers a chronicle of the early years of AIDS. Following in Shilts’ footsteps, Canadian epidemiologist Jacques Pepin captures an even earlier picture of the AIDS pandemic through its catalysts—social factors that allowed HIV’s incendiary spread and the virus’ innate ability to start a pandemic. In the process, Pepin finds, possibly once and for all, the answers to questions we’ve been asking ourselves for decades:

What (and maybe who) helped the few initial HIV infections to set off a pandemic? Why? How could we let it happen?

In his new book, Pepin revisits “the origins of AIDS,” taking us on a journey to early twentieth-century Central Africa, offering a scientific documentation of the evolution of AIDS from cradle to worldwide crisis. Pepin chronicles the many factors—including political, economical, and also human— that have facilitated the first few HIV infections to grow exponentially, travel from Africa to Europe and Haiti to reach the United States, and come to light in the summer of 1981.

Pepin explains his theory that the original HIV infections, from chimps to humans, were very few and thus impossible, by themselves, to set off a pandemic. Human and social factors helped as well: the en-masse immunizations for sleeping disease while reusing needles, and also the virus’ ability to initiate this pandemic under certain conditions. And it was possible because we, humans, facilitated these conditions.

The language of Pepin’s book is academic, yet easily accessible to a lay, educated readership. Graphics, charts and maps emphasize the text content. The Origins of AIDS offers, for the first time, an in-depth look into the pandemic prior to 1981 and, with that, the missing pieces that complete the story of AIDS.

The Origin of AIDS by Jacques Pepin is published by Cambridge University Press.

book review.

The first officially documented AIDS cases surfaced in the United States in 1981. With that epidemic started the quest for AIDS’ origins and for a cure. More than three decades later, a cure is not yet in sight, but the image of the cradle of AIDS, its time and place defined, has come into new focus, as have the trails the virus first took in its worldwide onslaught.