King Leopold’s Legacy: Imperialism and the Origin of AIDS

“I can choose to die of starvation now, or of AIDS later”—Prostitute in Harare, Zimbabwe

A continuing holocaust of mind-numbing dimensions. Fifteen million have already died. Thirty-four million are HIV-infected, including 25 million in sub-Saharan Africa. HIV/AIDS will kill 67% of today’s teenagers in some African countries. Women are twice as likely as men to become infected. Thirty million African orphans are predicted by 2010, life expectancies dropping from 70 years to 30 in some countries. If neutron bombs were dropped on the dozen biggest cities of Africa, the damage could not be worse. International response to this crisis has been obscene. Bosses and politicians fight over drug prices and profits, while they spend much more on Viagra and baldness remedies ($333 million QUARTERLY earnings, according to Pfizer), than on all international HIV programs in sub-Saharan Africa ($600 million YEARLY of international aid for HIV/AIDS).

Though many see the AIDS pandemic either as a “natural” disaster or as a biological warfare conspiracy, it is actually rooted in the devastation imperialism has inflicted on African societies. This first of a series of articles on the political economy of AIDS will discuss where the HIV virus and the AIDS pandemic in Africa came from.

Scientists have recently learned much about the origin of HIV. Like influenza and rabies, AIDS is a disease transmitted from animals to humans. The closest relatives of HIV are SIVs, viruses carried by apes and monkeys. HIV-1 most resembles a chimpanzee SIV, found in rain forests of coastal West Africa. HIV-2, a milder West African virus, is nearly identical to a monkey SIV. These viruses have lived in their natural hosts for millions of years and don’t make them sick. Among scientists, the currently favored idea of how the viruses jumped into humans is that people hunted chimps and monkeys for meat, and cut themselves while butchering.

HIV is relatively new to humans. The earliest verified HIV case was in 1959, in Kinshasa, Congo; African blood samples from earlier times are free of the virus. HIV exploded in Africa during the early 1970’s, just before it spread to the U.S. and Europe. Very early cases were found near the borders of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. From there it quickly spread to Zambia and Tanzania. Before the 1970’s, AIDS was as unknown in Africa as in the U.S.

HIV evolves rapidly. Its gene sequences accumulate mutations in a steady, clock-like manner. The more differences, the more time has passed since viruses had a common ancestor. By comparing the genes of currently circulating viruses, it is possible to make an informed guess as to when the common M type of HIV-1, the one responsible for the worldwide pandemic, began. The best guess is in the 1930’s.

HIVs not only jumped from animals to humans recently; they also did so OFTEN, at least four times. This is inferred from the fact that some HIV strains are genetically more similar to SIVs than to each other. So it seems that HIV is relatively easy to catch from animals, and that no special mutations are needed to make it virulent in humans. In fact, a lab worker recently developed AIDS from a monkey SIV after an accidental needle stick.

So, if the virus jumps easily to humans, why did the pandemic not start until the late 20th century? What changed that made repeated transfer to humans more likely and explosive growth a certainty?

Until the late 19th century, most Africans farmed and lived in rural villages. Then feverish land grabs among imperialists—seeking rubber, gold, ivory and diamonds—created the largest forced labor system since African-American slavery. For example, King Leopold II of Belgium seized the Congo and ruled it for years as his personal rubber plantation. Fifteen million Congolese died in this genocidal holocaust. Forced labor was the rule in colonial Africa. Copper mines in Katanga (Congo) rounded up miners from Zambia, Rwanda, Angola and Mozambique. Colonial armies drafted millions of Africans during both world wars. During the 1930’s, the French built a railroad through coastal West Africa, drafting hundreds of thousands of African laborers from distant locations and marching them through the rain forest under appalling conditions of near-starvation. According to one theory, it is here that Africans first were exposed to SIVs, as workers made desperate by starvation had to hunt apes as food.

Another theory places the origin of AIDS in the Belgian Congo and neighboring countries. In his thoughtful book, The River, Edward Hooper argues that HIV spread to humans through racist trials of polio vaccines. During the late 1950’s, Hilary Koprowski of Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute gave an experimental oral vaccine to over 300,000 Africans, using them as guinea pigs. Hooper suggests that Koprowski may have grown vaccine poliovirus in chimp cells contaminated with the SIV ancestor of HIV. Hooper’s ideas lack solid evidence, but they are being taken seriously enough to prompt testing of remnant vaccine stocks.

Whichever theory turns out to be true, it is clear that the crossover of the virus was a result of conditions created by colonialism. But what caused HIV’s later explosive growth? (Continued tomorrow)

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