The Origins of AIDS, Jacques Pépin, Cambridge University Press, €54.90, $85.00.
Have you ever wondered how, where and when the global AIDS pandemic started? How it spread to all the continents of the globe within the span of a few decades, decimating countries’ families, workforce, and youth? Dr. Jacques Pepin’s book provides answers to these questions, and refutes previous accounts claiming to explain the transmission routes. It takes us back to 1921 – the date of the most recent common ancestor of pandemic HIV-1 strains. Around then, the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus was probably transmitted from a Pan Troglodyte chimpanzee to ‘patient zero’ in central Africa. While the disease had probably crossed species a good few times over the last thousand years – after all, humans inhabited the same forests as these chimpanzees – it had resulted in dead ends. But, various factors allowed one contamination to turn into an epidemic. Which ones? In a brilliant historical account, with the use of statistics, epidemiology and phylogenetic techniques, Pepin identifies the roles of firearms, colonial medical institutions, prostitution, urbanization, decolonization, corruption, poverty, peacekeeping and the blood-trade in the contagion process. At the same time as providing a framework of spectra through which nascent disease can be analyzed, his work also teaches us to view science with humility. As Pepin himself explains, his research illustrates “the complex relationships between social changes and disease,” warning that upcoming changes will affect the dissemination of both old and new diseases.