How We Helped a Killer out of Africa; ANALYSIS

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Byline: ANGUS DALGLEISH

SO now we know - and it is what my colleagues and I in the Aids research community have strongly suspected all these years. The origins of HIV can be traced to a subspecies of the chimpanzee, until recently commonly found in places like Congo, Gabon, Angola, and Nigeria.

We know, too, how the virus jumps the barrier between Man and chimp.

Chimps are a delicacy in that part of Africa, and HIV-infected meat can infect people involved in catching chimps, usually through scratches.

Of course, chimps have been hunted for generations by local people.

But as the region became less isolated, as roads were gouged into the jungles to expand logging and mining, it became easier to hunt them commercially. As a result, more infected chimps were being eaten by more local people. No wonder things started going wrong.

My informed guess is that there have been plenty of localised outbreaks of HIV in west Central Africa down the decades. But tribespeople and villagers lived isolated lives, and so the outbreaks were naturally contained and died out fairly rapidly. So why did HIV suddenly take off about 25 years ago and spread round the world with such frightening speed?

I am not a social scientist, but I believe the answer lies in the unprecedented social, cultural, economic and technical changes of recent years, both in Africa and the rest of the world.

In particular, I have come to accept that changes in patterns of sexual behaviour and improved transport have together done the damage. In the last 30 years, there has been massive growth in the number of commercial juggernauts thundering back and forth across the Trans-Africa highways.

Squalid shanty towns have grown up to service both trucks and truckers on the edge of towns or in the bush.

Long-distance truck drivers who are away from home for weeks at a time expect, as their right, casual commercial sex. The result is that drivers infect prostitutes, and prostitutes infect more drivers, and so HIV outbreaks are spread across the continent with the speed of a bush fire.

In Ugandan towns, you can predict the proportion of the population with Aids based on their proximity to a truck stop.

Next, consider the impact of the jumbo jet. Travel from Europe and America to Africa for business or pleasure is commonplace now.

Mix in the new Western culture of promiscuity - casual and guilt-free sex for pleasure, also expected as a right. As a result, there is a lot more commercial sex cutting across racial lines in Africa.

NO wonder many visitors who indulged in sexual tourism picked up HIV, along with many other unpleasant but nonfatal sexually-transmitted diseases. …