An international team of historians and anthropologists, including two Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professors, will spend the next three years hunting down the origins of HIV/AIDS.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a $290,000, three-year grant to IUPUI for the project titled “An International Collaboration on the Political, Social, and Cultural History of the Emergence of HIV/AIDS.”
Under the leadership of IUPUI professor William H. Schneider, six humanities scholars assisted by three medical research consultants will study evidence supporting the most frequently offered explanations for the emergence of the global AIDS pandemic.
“It is a clear and a worthwhile goal: figuring out the origin of AIDS,” said Schneider, a historian of medicine who teaches in the history department and directs the medical humanities and health studies program, both part of the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. “The emergence of new diseases, such as avian flu and swine flu, is one of the most important health concerns in recent decades.”
The new study could prove invaluable to those working in global health by providing information about how other new diseases emerge, the principal investigator said.
“It can offer a model for medical science and public health researchers who recognize that their studies need to account for the larger historical, political, economic, social and cultural relations and processes that shape disease emergence.”
Three prominent HIV/AIDS researchers — virologists Preston Marx and François Simon and epidemiologist Ernest Drucker — will serve as medical research consultants. The collaboration began 10 years ago and was recently assisted by the IUPUI Office of Vice Chancellor for Research, which provided $15,000 in seed money for the project.
Scientists widely agree that immune viruses have existed in the African simian population — chimps and monkeys — for tens of thousands of years. Some of these evolved and adapted into viruses that were devastating to the human population less than 100 years ago.
Through DNA sequencing, scientists have identified a dozen human immunodeficiency virus strains, two of which, HIV-1 and HIV-2, are responsible for the current AIDS pandemic among humans.
Because there were several adaptations, most scientists agree that the transfer was not a random incident, and they point to colonial rule of Africa as the circumstance permitting the adaptations.
The question is how and why?
Until now, explanations have focused on finding a “smoking gun,” i.e., the first case of human immunodeficiency virus. But that scholarship has lacked a critical humanities approach to the wide array of available field and archival resources.
Schneider’s team will address those shortcomings.
“This project is meant to place the medical, public health and biological dimensions of the origin of (HIV/AIDS) in its historical context in sub-Saharan Africa — bringing attention for the first time to the details of the specific social and cultural consequences of the introduction of (Western) medicine which was followed in short order by the appearance of the HIV epidemic,” Drucker said.
The research team will focus on the three most feasible explanations: changes in great ape and monkey hunting; social transformations during colonial rule including urbanization, prostitution and human mobility; and new medical interventions, specifically injection campaigns and blood transfusions, that facilitated transfer of viruses.
Schneider, an expert in the history of blood transfusions in Africa, along with Guillaume Lachenal of the University of Paris, will study the role of blood transfusions and vaccination campaigns, health interventions unheard of in Africa before colonial rule.
IUPUI professor Ch. Didier Gondola, chairman of the history department, is also a member of the research team. He is an authority on the history of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, the two neighboring African cities considered to be the place where the HIV-1 epidemic began, which is responsible for 85 percent of today’s AIDS cases. Gondola will investigate the impact of equatorial African urbanization, migration and gender on the emergence of AIDS.
The team will conduct field research and consult several archives and colonial and medical service records in Africa and Europe. Beginning with an IUPUI meeting in February 2014, the scholars will meet periodically to review the research, which will conclude with the publication of a book in 2016.
The HIV/AIDS project was one of four Indiana awards among the 173 NEH grants announced in July for a total of $33 million.