The Origin of AIDS: an Ethical Inquiry

New York City

Whenever the question arises about the origin of AIDS, two positions are usually staked out. One is that AIDS was invented in a laboratory by a group of Western scientists in order to kill black people and gays. The other position is that it was an unexpected development, completely out of anyone’s control, not intended to harm any group in particular. In the February/March edition of POZ, an HIV/AIDS magazine published in the U.S., Lucile Scott wrote that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai said that “AIDS is a tool to control [Africans and black people] designed by some evil-minded scientists.” Because of the way her comment was presented, it was clear that POZ didn’t share her view. POZ asked five people prominent in the AIDS field to comment on what she said. POZ did not say what criterion was used to pick the five. Here are their comments.

1-Marie Saint Cyr, executive director, Iris House, a center for women living with HIV, NYC. “We may remain suspicious about HIV’s origins, but 48 million lives are infected. We have no time to focus on the mad-scientist theory.”

2-Cornelius Baker, executive director, Walker-Whitman Clinic, Washington, DC. “Maathai did not say anything that hasn’t been said in the South Bronx or South Florida. I hope her comments will redouble efforts to investigate the origins of HIV and prove her wrong.”

3-Nguru Karugu, international program manager, Balm in Gilead, an international black AIDS service organization, NYC. “Many black folks believe that AIDS was created in labs. The fact that Maathai is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist gives it credence. Unless [the belief of] this theory is acknowledged, African intervention will be unsuccessful.”

4-Edward Hooper, author of The River: A Journey to the Source of HIV and AIDS. “Her comments are unhelpful–both for those who insist HIV crossed accidentally from chimpanzees to humans and for those (like me) who believe it began with careless scientific experimentation. Carelessness and genocide are very different.”

5-Beatrice Hahn, MD, professor of medicine, University of Alabama-Birmingham. “Since my lab evidence that HIV came from chimp SIV may not seem convincing, we need to go into the forest and prove, using noninvasive approaches, that wild chimps with SIV could pass it on to the people who hunt and butcher them. Then lab-made HIV would seem stupid.”

Even though I don’t believe that any scientist had the ability to create and direct a life form, this belief isn’t the main problem. The position that the virus developed without a plan in humans also sidesteps the key problem. The main problem is how the illness has been dealt with. This problem has to be confronted so that the origin of AIDS doesn’t keep on popping up and interfering with our ability to defeat this plague.

To confront this problem, the first thing we have to do is realize that the origin of AIDS question has two parts. The first part of the problem is ethical. The second part is financial. The ethical problem is, Is the developed world vicious enough to want tens of millions of people in Africa and other parts of the developing world dead in order to control resources and maintain profits? The answer is a deafening yes. All one has to do is examine briefly the history of the relationship between the developed world and Africa before AIDS. This history includes 250 years of African slavery by Europe and the U.S., killing of millions of Congolese by the Belgians, the colonization and looting of the African continent by the Europeans, the support of apartheid in South Africa by Europe and the U.S., the endless debt burden imposed on Africa and the ongoing death of hundreds of thousands of African women in childbirth and the death annually from preventable causes of millions of African children under age 5. The history of the difference in the death rate between blacks and whites in the U.S. provides more evidence. In the December 21, 2004 edition of The Washington Post, January W. Payne wrote an article entitled “Blacks dying for lack of health care: Disparities cost 886,000 lives in the U.S. in ’90s.” The article is based on studies reported in the December 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health that examined the disparities in health care between blacks and whites in the U.S.

The origin of AIDS issue will not go away because the former genocidal policies of the developed world have not been abandoned in favor of humanitarian activities to defeat the AIDS plague. On the contrary. In a report released Friday, March 25, 2005, the UN said that AIDS could kill 80 million Africans by the year 2025 if the present AIDS policies remain in force in the developed world. Despite the concern of the World Bank that the current policies could lead to regional economic collapse, existing programs that could stop the spread of AIDS and dramatically reduce the death toll in Africa and the rest of the developing world are not adopted. The Cuban anti-AIDS program is an excellent model to help implement a successful fight-back. But rather than support and help to promote that life-saving program, the U.S. is constantly threatening to destroy it and destroy Cuba. Instead, the U.S. pays for a failed program of abstinence only as the prevention tool.

Additional scientific advancements are not necessary to dramatically reduce the death toll and infection rate in Africa right now. In 1996 when the anti-retroviral drug therapy (anti-HIV “cocktails” usually made up of 3 or more drugs) came into widespread use in the U.S. and Europe, there was a dramatic reduction in the death rate of 40 to 80 percent. Now we know more about defeating HIV, so the death rate from AIDS continues to drop. The use of condoms, medical nutrition therapy (a diet specifically tailored to meet the nutritional needs of HIV+ people), new anti-retroviral drug therapy, other medications needed to treat opportunistic infections (illnesses caused by the weakening of the immune system), and education to reduce the stigma of being HIV+ can make a huge difference. Safe, clean water has to be made available so that HIV- babies born to HIV+ mothers can be fed formula rather than breastfed since breastfeeding can transmit the virus to uninfected infants. Infants fed formula made with bad water may die faster than if they were infected with HIV.

The second part of the origin of AIDS question is financial. In order to protect its profits, the pharmaceutical industry in the developed world is fighting an ongoing battle to prevent the production of low cost, generic anti-HIV medications. In the March 24, 2005 edition of The New York Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr. published an article entitled “India Alters Law on Drug Patents.” Although India was a primary source of inexpensive, generic AIDS drugs, the new law eliminated that source. India was forced to pass the law as a prerequisite for joining the World Trade Organization. Loon Gangte, an Indian living with AIDS who runs an AIDS program, said: “I am using generic AIDS drugs because I can afford the price. Since the bill has passed, when I need new drugs, I won’t be able to afford them. I could become one of the casualties.” Millions of other people also fear becoming casualties because India supplied drugs to about one half of the people with AIDS in the developing world.

Inexpensive medical nutrition therapy has not been adopted in the U.S. as an AIDS-fighting standard of care, so it’s unlikely that it will be promoted in Africa. We must always remind ourselves that no medication works without adequate amounts of the “big three”– air, water, and food. Without those three, life is over.

It’s not an evil scientist or even HIV/AIDS that’s killing off so many Africans. It’s the developed world’s dollar-based health care system that’s doing the job. Pathogens will come and go through the natural history of the world. HIV/AIDS is just one of them. It was welcomed as an unexpected ally by the developed world in the effort to re-colonize and exploit Africa. Unless the world’s progressive community intervenes to help defeat AIDS, those who want to exploit Africa’s vast wealth will make the most of this plague, whether HIV was produced in a laboratory by a psychopathic scientist or developed by accident.

EDWIN KRALES is an HIV/AIDS Nutritionist and Health Educator in New York City. He can be reached at: edwinkrales@hotmail.com









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