Debate Rages Anew Over Origin of AIDS

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Copyright 1999 IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network

IPS-Inter Press Service

The long-held perception that the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) began spontaneously in Africa has been challenged by a British writer, sparking renewed debate over the origins of the disease.

In his recent book, "The River: A Journey Back To The Source Of HIV And AIDS", Edward Hooper puts forth the provocative theory that AIDS actually was introduced to the African continent by Western medicine.

According to Hooper, the first infection occurred during the tests for a polio vaccine, conducted in the 1950s and 1960s in certain parts of East and Central Africa by Western medical researchers.

Hooper suspects that the vaccine used in the CHAT experimental program might have been made with chimpanzee tissue contaminated with an ancestor of the virus that would eventually become AIDS.

From 1957 to 1960, the vaccine was given to a million people in what are now Burundi, Rwanda and Congo.

Hooper notes that of the 28 cases of AIDS reported in specific towns in Africa through 1980, 23 were from the same towns where the vaccine was given or within 175 miles of them.

This is not the first time that such a theory has been propounded; an article in Rolling Stone made the same charge in 1992 and Hooper's critics have turned to the research that followed that article to dismiss his conclusions.

At that time, said Lisa Jacobs of the U.N.'s joint program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the scientific community was intrigued by the "incredible hypothesis," and the validity of the theory was put to test.

"The result was that there were too many holes to make it a useful theory," she said, asserting that the same was true of Hooper's book. "Most experts who base their opinions on scientific grounds believe Hooper's theory to be highly unlikely."

A British newspaper published a report containing similar sentiments -- that Hooper's argument has been rejected by "most of the scientific community."

The author has his defenders, however, who argue that the studies carried out after the "Rolling Stone" article appeared were partly based on a published finding that later "was shown to be in error."

And just last week, an article in a U.S. newspaper had this to say: "Experts writing in journals have praised Mr. Hooper's diligence and scholarship, and the plausibility of the thesis."

Writing in the New York Times, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman observed, "Even if the thesis is disproved, Mr. Hooper's research has embarrassed scientists. He has found that leading researchers kept sloppy records and that prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals published reports that omitted crucial details."

Since it was detected by doctors in 1981, the origins of HIV/AIDS have been a mystery, and the desperate search for answers to its genesis has spawned myths and a variety of theories.

Among the more bizarre explanations was that HIV was an alien from outer space or that it was an agent of biological warfare.

Virologists, on the other hand, have focused on more plausible theories, like the one that says "a forerunner of HIV could have 'jumped' species from monkeys to humans if blood from a monkey was splashed into a cut or a mucous membrane, such as the eye."

Nevertheless, according to UNAIDS, a convincing answer has remained elusive.

The medical community does believe that HIV may have entered the human population sometime in the 1970s and that its explosive spread during the years that followed was the result of "urbanization, cheap travel and major international conflicts increasing the potential for people from different communities to have sex with each other."

Today, AIDS has killed more than 16 million people and another 33 million are infected, making it among the worst epidemics in history. The region in the world hardest his has been Sub-Saharan Africa, where close to 3,800 HIV/AIDS victims are detected every day, with almost 90 percent of them having indulged in heterosexual sex.

Some 63 percent of all AIDS cases are in Africa, a continent that has only 10 percent of the world's population.

According to a World Bank study, AIDS is taking a "devastating toll in human suffering and death in Africa."

The study points out that AIDS now exceeds malaria and other conditions as the leading cause of death of people aged between 15-49 in more than 15 countries.

Such devastating reality has prompted the Western medical establishment to be hostile towards research into the origins of this disease, said Bill Hamilton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, who wrote the foreword to Hooper's book.

"It cannot bring itself to believe that a disaster of this magnitude could have been started by one of its own," he adds.

Hamilton has encountered many experts who have refused to discuss Hooper's theory in public.

"Only recently a colleague said that he supposed there might be truth in the theory but he wasn't going to publish anything on it. He went on to say that he would lose his grant from the medical research body that supports him," he asserted.

What impressed Hamilton about Hooper's story was "the synchronization of time and place."

"None of the facts amounts to proof but taken together, the trend and accumulation is impressive. At least the OPV (oral polio vaccine) theory of the origins of AIDS now merits our attention," he stressed.

In his book, Hooper challenges the medical community to test his conclusions. He wants one of the known samples of the suspected batch of vaccines, still preserved at the Philadelphia-based Wistar Institute, to be tested to see if it contains HIV or traces of the simian virus.

Dr. Claudio Basilico, head of a Wistar committee examining the AIDS origin claims, has said in published reports that his committee may be reactivated to participate in the sampling of the stored vaccine. "It ought to be done because it can be done," he was quoted as saying.

The World Health Organization, however, has reportedly shown little interest in this new finding, with an official telling Hooper that the origin of AIDS was "certainly of no interest today".