Open Book. B&W. ©Alina Oswald.

Book Review: The Origin of AIDS

A #tbt review originally published in A&U Magazine

The Origin of AIDS
by Jacques Pepin
Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Alina Oswald

The first officially documented AIDS cases surfaced in the United States in 1981. With the epidemic, so started the quest for AIDS origins, and also 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 to take over the world.

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 tens of millions of individuals.

While many books captured various facets of AIDS after its impact on the mainstream community, Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On offered 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’s 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?


How could we let it happen?

In his new book, Pepin revisits “the origins of AIDS,” taking us on a journey back in time and place, to early twentieth-century Central Africa, offering scientific documentation of the evolution of AIDS from cradle to pandemic. Pepin follows this remarkable journey chronicling 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.

In his book, 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 using the same needles, and also the virus’s 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.

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