“Dr. Pepin’s research over the years also involved testing the blood of older Africans; and he spent years sifting through historical documents on the colonial period – newspapers, records, academic studies – in capitals across Europe. His turning point, he said, came one day in the southern French city of Marseilles. He was poring over medical archives and found a motherlode of original records crammed with painstaking charts and entries outlining the massive use of injections in colonial Africa.
“That day was a revelation. I realized that these reports probably contained a big part of the explanation of what happened behind the emergence of AIDS,” he said. “If there hadn’t been those medical campaigns, in my opinion, there probably wouldn’t have been an AIDS epidemic.”
Being French-speaking helped him to tackle the mounds of records from the French and Belgian colonial powers, he added.
His work led him to connect the dots between that first bush hunter, who probably got infected with HIV while manipulating chimpanzee meat, to the sex trade in fast-growing African cities decades later. Then, in a more speculative turn, he believes the virus bridged the Atlantic with a single Haitian teacher returning home in the 1960s after working in Zaire, before spreading through a Haitian plasma centre, sex tourism and finally surfacing among gay men in California.
Published this month by Cambridge University Press, the book is being praised by AIDS experts, even as some admit they had never previously heard of Dr. Pepin. His home is in Sherbrooke, 150 kilometres east of Montreal, where he heads the University of Sherbrooke’s infectious-diseases department.
Max Essex, chairman of the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Initiative, describes the book as more scholarly and “substantial” than previous works that try to trace the path of AIDS before the 1980s.
“This was the first thing I’ve seen that tried to explain the origin of HIV … with all the phases of the emergence, through to the larger epidemic,” Dr. Essex said in an interview.
Oliver Pybus of the University of Oxford, an evolutionary biologist and AIDS researcher, said Dr. Pepin’s study of historical records from central Africa “makes his work new and insightful.”
Prof. Pepin said that even if his book focuses on the historical trail of the AIDS epidemic, it also contains the seeds of a cautionary tale for the medical world today.
“Doctors and scientists can draw a lesson in prudence and humility from this,” he said. “When you manipulate nature in a way you don’t completely understand, the consequences can be unpredictable and absolutely disastrous.” “