There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the origins of HIV. Where did it come from? How did it enter the human population? Why has HIV/AIDS surfaced in humans only within the last 30 years? And why is Africa so disproportionately affected? I have heard the racist claim, put forth only partly as a joke, that HIV first entered the human population through sex with chimpanzees in Africa. I have also heard the declaration, not at all a joke, that the US government intentionally developed HIV as a biological weapon, intending to wipe out homosexuals and control black population growth. There is much misunderstanding and unjustified speculation where the origins of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic are concerned.
So how did AIDS begin?
As it turns out, according to the leading theory, HIV did come from chimpanzees—through the ingestion of their meat. A virus very similar to Human Immunodeficiency Virus, called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, infects chimpanzees the same way HIV affected humans. Both viruses are part of a group of microbes called lentiviruses, or ‘slow viruses,’ all of which do not cause health problems until well after the host organism’s initial infection. In some areas of Africa, SIV infects chimps, and African bushmen hunt chimps for food. Through digestion, the SIV virus entered the bloodstream of these hunters and their families. Because human DNA is very similar to chimpanzee DNA and because these lentiviruses are so adaptable, SIV survived in its new host species, evolving ever so slightly to defend itself against the human immune system. That multiple strains of HIV appeared in humans seemingly independently of each other supports this theory. In each new host, the virus would evolve differently in order to best ensure survival. Since African health care is poor in quality, it makes sense that the US, with better medical care, first identified AIDS as a new disease. It also makes sense that AIDS appeared on both sides of the country, because the US was not the point of origin. Admittedly, it is puzzling that HIV had not appeared in humans until the 20th century. More research has yet to determine exactly how, where, and when the first transfers took place, if this information can be ascertained at all.
The man-eat-chimp theory is the scientific consensus, but there are others, some bordering on plausible and some almost comical. For instance, many Americans do believe in a US government conspiracy, a systematic attempt to control gay and black populations through the release of AIDS. Another theory is that HIV began with contaminated polio vaccinations, though how they would have been contaminated is uncertain—perhaps through the use of needles in both chimps and humans. A third possible culprit, a few scholars assert, is European colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2000, James Moore claimed that the terrible living conditions of African labor camps in the Belgian and British Empires drove African workers to consume infected animals. Given that much of Africa is and always has been very poor, and perhaps therefore liable to eat infected animals anyway, blaming colonialism may be inappropriate.
It seems as though a lot of people, professionally and informally, have inserted their biases into their theories about HIV’s origins. This is dangerous. Speculation about the origin of AIDS can fuel racism, for there are those who want to show that Africans have degenerate sexual practices, and that HIV is a punishment for sin. Similarly, blaming colonialism for AIDS may unduly add to the already heavy judgment many historians have laid upon European imperialists. It is important to search for the origin of HIV as objectively as possible, with the goal of adding to current knowledge of the virus, not of reinforcing one’s own beliefs or prejudices.