In the beginning: Thinking through the history of HIV/AIDS

In the beginning: Thinking through the history of HIV/AIDS

How has HIV/AIDS been understood in the northern hemisphere? One answer is found in Paul Farmer's work on HIV/AIDS in Haiti. (click on map for a close-up view)

AIDS is a global problem and there should be a global solution found by the entire international community. It is really scary to see and imagine our world fall into pieces because we refuse to share and put in the common vestiges of our civilizations.            – Actress Sarah Polley speaks out on contamination, zombies, and AIDS

This weeks blog post, written by intern Megan Bauer, arose from conversations with the Tariro’s founder, Jennifer Kyker, over the past few months, and is Part 1 of a three-part discussion.  Today’s post is going to discuss the history of AIDS and how it began, followed by a discussion of all the groups who have been accused of spreading it, and finally, a look toward the future.

AIDS and accusation

While talking to Jennifer, she asked me what I have learned and found the most interesting since I have started my internship.  One of my answers was my surprise upon learning that the first diagnosed case of AIDS was in the United States, leading to our conversation about why, when people think of AIDS, their next thought is almost always about Africa.

Trying to understand why HIV/AIDS is coded as an African disease, Jennifer directed me a book called, “AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame”, written by Paul Farmer.  The book tells the story of how, when AIDS first got attention in the 1980’s, many people looking for the origins of the virus initially laid blame on Haiti, suggesting that Haitian migrants to the United States, as well as American tourists in Haiti, were primarily responsible for spreading the virus.

Looking at the History of HIV/AIDS

According to, “The first recognized cases of AIDS occurred in the USA in the early 1980’s.” At this time there was not a name for the condition and physicians were not yet aware of what they were up against. “Several physicians in Los Angeles observed that Pneumocystis carinii, a harmless parasite to those with intact immune defenses, had caused pneumonia (P.C.P.) in several young men without recognized states of immunodeficiency” (Farmer 125). The Center for Disease Control (CDC) began monitoring the drug distributions and noticed that in five of the cases for men being treated with PCP in Los Angeles all of them were active homosexuals:

By the end of the summer in 1981, 108 cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma, (a form of Cancer), and unexplained opportunistic infections had been reported to the CDC. The vast majority of cases were from California and New York. Of those afflicted 107 were men; over 90 percent of these men stated that they were gay and sexually active. (Farmer 125)

When the idea of an epidemic began to surface, American health specialists began reviewing records and saw that “there had been unexpected clusterings of Kaposi’s sarcoma and opportunistic infections beginning in early 1977” (Farmer 125).  Shortly after American specialists began noticing the unexpected clusterings Haitian physicians began seeing similar conditions of immunosuppression, leading to the detection of the first Haitian case of Kaposi’s sarcoma in June 1979 (Farmer 125).

Blaming Haiti

During this time fear of an epidemic began to surface, and the United States officially defined this unknown immunosuppression as AIDS.  There were categorized symptoms that physicians in the United States had come to associate with the disease and these symptoms “were strikingly similar” to those that began showing up in the people of Haiti.

This is precisely the moment in time when the accusations began. Physicians of the United States began to claim that Haiti had the first case of HIV, and that the gay population from the United States brought it back to America after contracting it from male prostitutes in Haiti.  People in the United States also made remarks that weren’t proven by science at all.  For example, they perceived Haitians who practiced voodoo to be “rugged and gross individuals,” and suggested had participated in spreading the condition to the United States.  From this point forward, tides of hate and blame began to intensify, leading the Haitian government to initiate a study entitled the Haitian Study Group on Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (GHESKIO), to fight against these accusations.

The point of Farmer’s book is that since the beginning of time people have always looked for someone to blame, whether that group is Haitians, the gay community, or Africans.  However, we may never know who had the very first case of AIDS, and the origins of the virus should not be our primary concern.

Moving forward

In next weeks post I am going to delve farther into the history of accusations, discuss various groups who have been accused of spreading the disease since the initial blame laid upon Haiti, in order to show readers that blame and accusations have never been consistent with respect to HIV/AIDS, but have put on changing groups of people throughout history.  While people have often sought to blame someone for this terrible virus, however, its history remains unclear.

In the present, our job is to recognize that it doesn’t matter how the problem started- what matters is how we respond to HIV/AIDS right now.  Tariro’s response is one of educating young women and girls, a population that is simultaneously at the highest risk for contracting the disease, and the group made most vulnerable through the effects of HIV/AIDS on their communities, as they loss parents, teachers, and other community leaders to the disease.  Please join us in our work!



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