The Chimp and the River: How Aids Emerged from an African Rain Forest (Book Review) - Lunchtime Lit with Mel
While laying in bed trying to recuperate from food poisoning, it's probably not a good idea to read books about mass epidemics that have wiped out millions of people. Books like these do not tend to boost the morale of the person recuperating, and as such are not often prescribed by medical practitioners. But sometimes the old adage "any port in a storm" applies and you have to grab the first book on the shelf before you dash downstairs to pay your penance to the porcelain god.
Such was the situation I found myself in a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I were the recipients of a batch of tainted restaurant fajitas, and this wiped us out for three days. Because I am a voracious reader who cannot just sit around without a book in my hand, the long hours of sitting required during my bout with that gastrointestinal bug required something substantial to read. Luckily, my oldest son is a reading nut just like me, so I pilfered through his book supply and found a title that grabbed my attention immediately.
I have only written one other book review here on Hub Pages, but the book I am discussing at the present, entitled "The Chimp and the River," led me to some conclusions that probably merit sharing with the public at large. The principle idea I took away from David Quammen's captivating narrative of how the HIV virus spread from the chimpanzee population of a Cameroon rainforest to become a devastating destroyer of humanity is that superstitious, unscientific conclusions about killer diseases are ignorant at best, and dangerous at worst. The virus that causes AIDS is not a scourge of God sent to wipe out homosexuals and drug addicts. The HIV virus is a pathogen that jumped from apes to humans in a random, accidental fashion, then reached epidemic proportions via an unexpected pathway that had nothing at all to do with sexual orientation.
There were no real villains in the HIV drama; it was simply an act of human-viral interaction, such as have occurred countless times over the course of human evolution. Along with with every other organism that populates this globe, human beings are truly at the mercy of viruses. There is no way of predicting from what quarter a new toxic microbe will appear and by what method it will make contact with humanity. At this very moment there are deadly viruses incubating slowly in some remote corner of the world, waiting to hop aboard an airplane, hitch a ride down some congested highway or dusty desert trail, or perhaps embark upon a crude fishing boat moving down some steaming jungle river, at the end of which billions of unwitting victims lie in blissful ignorance of the danger ahead.
I will refer to this book review series as "Lunchtime Lit," since the preponderance of my reading is done during my half hour Postal lunch break. Every now and then I would like to share insights from the books I read while parked beneath a shady tree, if I think I have something significant to contribute to the book's discussion. I will admit that I did not read this particular title over any lunch break, because I couldn't have kept any lunch down anyway during its reading; or breakfast or dinner for that matter. But I believe guidelines are meant to be bent, if not broken, and as such I present this review of The Chimp and the River as the first of hopefully more to come.
Evolution of a Virus
Approximately the first half of The Chimp and the River consists of a somewhat laborious technical explanation of how the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) evolved from SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), a pathogen that has been estimated to be present in monkeys and apes for the last 32,000 years. At times in this early part of the book the narrative gets bogged down in slightly dry, complicated explanations about how the various branches of SIV are related to one another. Nonetheless, Quammen is a skillful enough writer to maintain the interest of scientifically challenged readers such as myself, and to coax us to keep the pages turning.
I found the most interesting part of this segment to be the precision with which virologists can pin down the time frame that different strains of SIV and HIV branched off from one another. Scientists can accurately estimate when Sooty Mangabeys were first infected with SIV, as well as when the significantly different forms carried by Rhesus Macaques, chimpanzees, and a broad host of other primates came into being. Because viral mutations occur at a predictable rate, the percentage of genetic difference between these strains are analyzed to determine when these deviations from the main branch occurred. The same analysis is performed for human HIV, which has continuously evolved into several different sub-strains that predominate in different parts of the globe.
The Cradle of AIDS
Quammen reports that this analysis of viral variations led scientists to conclude that HIV broke away from SIV in approximately 1908. The "spillover" came from a chimpanzee, the ape whose version of SIV most closely resembles HIV. After chimpanzees were identified as the courier by which HIV jumped to humanity, the next mystery to be solved was in which corner of Africa the fatal contact occurred. Because chimpanzees don't willingly line up to give blood samples, it was a tricky endeavor to analyze chimp DNA in various parts of the African continent. A breakthrough was made when a group of scientists developed a method to extract Simian DNA from urine and fecal samples, and in this fashion the calamitous transfer was attributed to the chimpanzees of southeastern wedge of Cameroon; a densely forested area bordered by the Central African Republic on one side and the Congo on the other.
Bushmeat and the Fatal Encounter
Although there is no foolproof method to determine the first human recipient of the virus that became HIV, the most likely suspect seems to be a bushmeat hunter prowling about the Cameroon forests in the early years of the 20th century. The term bushmeat generally refers to the flesh of wild land mammals that are hunted or trapped and then slaughtered to be sold for food, typically at exorbitant prices. Relatively affluent people in many countries and cultures maintain a taste for wild game, even though many of the animals providing bushmeat are protected by law. Forbidden wine is often the sweetest, and for the stone-hearted palate, indifferent to the plight of magnificent rare beasts, forbidden flesh is often the juiciest. , Because large primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas are heavily protected and the risk involved in hunting of these animals increases their black market value exponentially, the flesh of the great apes is especially profitable for bushmeat hunters. In the area of Cameroon where the spillover between man and chimp occurred, a belief by certain tribal groups that the raw physical strength of this ape will be passed along via its consumption has also led to the practice of chimpanzee flesh being consumed in manhood initiation rites, another pathway to infection.
This raw physical power possessed by Gorillas and Chimpanzees causes bushmeat hunters to be cut or scratched in these encounters, enabling the blood to blood contact required for transmission, with the subsequent butchering of the ape creating another possible bridge. All the same, in that remote jungle corner of Cameroon where this contact occurred, low population density meant that the HIV infection initially spread very slowly. The virus required an even greater leap from the jungle to major population centers downriver before it could infect humanity on the pandemic levels that it has now reached.
The Voyager and Beyond
The most fascinating segment of the book involves the hypothetical journey of an HIV infected Cameroon river fisherman Quammen refers to as "The Voyager." The Voyager's odyssey downriver into the heart of the Congo river basin is described here as the event that planted the HIV virus in the fertile breeding ground required to begin infecting the estimated 78 million people who have have carried the virus since the initial contact with chimpanzees. Of course the Voyager exists strictly in the imagination of the author, but in that remote corner of Africa clogged by dense jungle vegetation; a place where roads were rare and motor vehicles virtually non existent at the turn of the 20th century, rivers were the easiest, most practical highway of transportation. It is easy to imagine the ambitious fisherman described by Quammen traveling downstream to sell a valuable load of elephant ivory he stumbled upon by accident. One can realistically surmise that only such an extremely valuable commodity as this could have enticed a humble fisherman to embark upon the dangerous trip down the relatively placid Sangha into the raging Congo, the world's deepest river, and second largest by discharge after the Amazon. The mighty Congo is fraught with powerful whirlpools and other deadly navigational obstacles that would make a poor man paddling a simple canoe hesitate, unless the reward waiting downstream made it worthwhile.
In Quammen's scenario the Voyager eventually makes it to Leopoldville, now the modern city of Kinshasa. Rather than risk the perilous journey back upstream he then uses the ivory money to settle down in the area around the city, where he passes his HIV infection to women with whom he has sexual relations. The Voyager eventually dies after his HIV progresses to AIDS, but still the virus remains in insignificant anonymity until the 1960s, when it finds an even more effective pathway that enables it to spread its deadly tendrils in exponential fashion.
This villain is nothing less than the hypodermic needle. However, as we might assume after decades of being informed that sexual activity, blood transfusions, and the sharing of unclean needles are the primary mode of transmission, drug users were not the culprit. The catalyst that sparked the pandemic conflagration that AIDS became was the action of well meaning African health authorities who were faced with a severe shortage of expensive hypodermic needles needed to inoculate the masses against deadly diseases. Needles used in mass vaccination campaigns were reused multiple times without proper sterilization, and in this fashion the deadly flames of HIV were quickly fanned out from Kinshasa into the world beyond.
What Did I Learn?
So what did I learn after so many hours spent on my reading "throne," contemplating global infections as I struggled with my own? A very important realization I drew from Quammen's book The Chimp and the River is that AIDS is still out there, and we ignore it at our own peril. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) informs us that in the United States alone there are 50,000 new infections per year, which stand out in disturbing contrast to the four US Ebola cases I could find on the CDC website. Perhaps your information is more current than mine, but I don't think Ebola will be catching up to AIDS anytime soon, at that lethargic rate. It may be true that AIDS does not inspire the same kind of public terror that it once did, but this is only because it is old news, and we humans have an unwise tendency to yawn and change the channel when the old news does not appear to have an immediate effect upon our lives. Yet even as we ignore it, HIV is still a force to be reckoned with, it is still going strong, and it is still meandering its way down new rivers toward untapped population centers, carried along by unwitting "voyagers" from every gender, age group, and sexual orientation.
A perhaps still more significant conclusion I reached from pondering this short but information packed volume is that HIV is indiscriminate about the victims it chooses across the broad spectrum of humanity. Infected Homo sapiens in widely separate regions around the globe are not all that different from one another, we are not even all that different from the apes that we caught this virus from; through no fault of the hunted chimpanzees that were only minding their own business. So what Quammen's book really teaches me is that instead of condemning one another and bringing down the wrath of God upon our neighbors, it is time to get over ourselves and start looking for real ways to help the largely ignored millions infected with the virus, deep in the very heart of Africa where it began, and in other neglected reaches across the globe.