Everyone looks for a scapegoat with human tragedy. With a devastating human disease like AIDS, I have heard a number of opinions and rumours of its origins from the general public, perpetuated by sensationalized half-truths from the uninformed.
AIDS was not spread by inappropriate behaviour with monkeys. And AIDS was here long before our Canadian ‘patient zero’ was blamed for the North American epidemic in the 1980s. Sex is enjoyed around the world as much as it is in Africa, so AIDS was not spread by some misguided perception of increased promiscuity in Africa.
Truth. Africans in the Congo basin and in the Rift Valley – our direct ancestors – just had the misfortune of living for thousands of years close to chimpanzee communities that carried the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the closest relative of HIV.
The obvious question, why did HIV wait until the 1900s to rear its ugly head?
The answer is complex.
Many academics and historians now agree the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium was likely responsible for millions of deaths in the region of Africa now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘The Emperor,’ as Leopold II liked to call himself, is likely culpable for more than 50 million deaths and counting. In the 1870s, Leopold II actually went hunting for a developing country he could pillage, and after an unsuccessful bid for the Philippines from Spain, he managed to convince the other European ‘occupiers’ to give him the Congo under the farce he would provide for and nurture the native inhabitants. (He actually set up a humanitarian organization called International African Society).
Being the biggest land owner in modern history, Leopold II hired a troop of henchmen, Force Publique, to enforce a tyranny that basically wiped out most of the human population through executions, torture and the successful spread of small pox and African sleeping sickness. While 10 million Congolese were eliminated, Leopold II became the richest man in the world and personally funded massive ‘public’ infrastructure projects in Belgium.
Before the explorations of Henry Morton Stanley and Sir Richard Francis Burton in the 1850s, these regions of the Congo River basin were basically cut off from the ‘civilized’ world. Humans lived in small villages, hunted in the jungles, fought and traded with local tribes, but rarely ventured more than a few kilometres from home. Chimpanzees and other monkeys were frequently a source of meat. Some of these same primates were also infected with SIV, which rarely caused disease in the chimps.
Even the most experienced butcher cuts himself at times, suggesting that SIV may have been transferred to people through blood contact.
Once SIV from chimps is transmitted to humans, the virus must still adapt into the pathogen HIV, but theories predict the modern disease of AIDS was not a one-off event. For centuries, HIV may have spread sporadically through a limited number of humans in a village or tribe, but remained contained from the rest of the human population.
Now along comes the Force Publique dispersing the natives to make way for massive logging operations and clearing the land for Leopold II’s rubber tree plantations. Enslavement of the native population, uprooting and moving them into forced labour camps, and building roads to facilitate this massive exploitation definitely broke down this symbiotic ecosystems shared by humans and apes.
Did HIV start spreading and killing Belgians and other foreigners due to interactions with the Congolese? Why did it take another 30-40 years for the first reported cases in Europe and explosion of AIDS in 1980s?
It’s hard to guess, considering AIDS may have been masked by malaria, sleeping sickness and other tropical diseases that were killing a high proportion of the foreign henchmen and workers. Also, during the period of SIV adaptation to humans, we now suspect HIV disease may have progressed even slower, or may even have been eradicated, in some infected people.
But let’s not speculate and simply look at the facts.
HIV Type 1 comes from chimpanzees. Fact. SIV jumped into humans to start the current global pandemic between 1890 and 1920. Fact. HIV-1’s closest relative is an SIV found in chimpanzees living today in the Congo basin. Fact. Of the 33 million people currently infected and the 40 million who have died of AIDS in the past 35 years, their HIV has an evolutionary root to HIV-1 in the Congo basin. Fact. Leopold II ruled, pillaged, raped and killed two to 10 million Congolese from 1885, the date he got the deeds to Congo, until he died in 1909. Fact.
Is one man’s greed responsible for starting the worst epidemic in the past 200 years? There may never be convincing proof of his link to AIDS, but HIV may have emerged from the worst genocide in modern human history.
Eric Arts is the Department of Microbiology and Immunology chair in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.