The murky origins of HIV/Aids

The subject of the origins of the HIV virus is a controversial one. While it is commonly accepted that the first cases of AIDS were reported in America in the 1980s, the most common theory is that the disease has its origins in Africa as early as the 1950s.

There are many theories about how the virus first came to infect humans, all of which carry their own social, political and scientific baggage and none of which offer a clear cut answer. The most commonly accepted theory these days is that the HIV virus is the mutated form of an immuno-deficiency virus prevalent amongst chimpanzee and monkey populations of West Africa.

What this theory doesn’t address is why the virus only moved from primates to humans in certain areas, despite being prevalent in others, and why it only made the jump fairly recently. Other theories take into account the legacy of colonialism in Africa and the unsanitary conditions during this period that may have allowed the virus to move from primates to humans.

This raises the question: do the origins of HIV have a place in HIV/Aids education? More than likely the answer is “no”, for the simple reason that that particular debate only serves to add another layer of contention to an already highly-fraught subject.

Consider, for example, a deeply religious person who refuses to believe that we share a common ancestor with apes. Such a person is unlikely to accept that a disease could move from chimpanzees to humans and may take their faith as sufficient protection against HIV. Or, consider someone for whom the European legacy in Africa is an uncomfortable subject best swept under the rug and forgotten about. Are they likely to engage in a debate that points a finger directly at their ancestors as the cause of a plague that has claimed thousands, if not millions of lives, on the continent?

In order for HIV/Aids education to be effective, the debate about the origins of the disease is best left to scientists and historians, while we focus on practical methods of prevention and treatment in the present.

Fact: During the 1980s in Africa, an illness known as “Slim Disease” was responsible for many deaths. It is now accepted that “Slim Disease” and Aids are the same thing.

Below are some unpublished images by Sifiso Yalo on the murky origins of HIV & AIDS