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Not Only Slavery, but AIDS Too

Posted on Apr 19, 2012
Jon Rawlinson (CC-BY)

By John Donnelly

(Page 2)

That concerns the role of Halperin, who first met Timberg in 2005 when Halperin worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the tiny African kingdom of Swaziland. Timberg, who refers to himself in the first person and to Halperin in the third person (which is slightly awkward given they are both authors of the book), writes that Halperin often “veered quickly into the realm of the impolite.”

Halperin “insisted that the two most important factors in understanding and reducing the spread of AIDS through African societies were sexual behavior and male circumcision.” Other experts saw numerous other reasons for the spread of AIDS, and Halperin “made a career of telling people that most of what they think they know about HIV is wrong.”

Reporter, meet source, and source, meet an audience of your dreams: Washington powerbrokers. Reporters who cover global health need many Halperins to translate the science and lift a curtain on the messy politics of aid. Timberg writes that he and Halperin were an “odd couple,” but I think not. They needed each other, and “Tinderbox” does a good job of highlighting Halperin’s important role in the epidemic.

book cover


Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It”


By Craig Timberg and David Palperin


Penguin Press HC, 432 pages


Buy the book

Halperin was one of a handful of researchers who forcefully argued for an expansion of male circumcision where it was not common. Male circumcision is a powerful preventive because it removes a part of the foreskin of the penis that can be easily infected by the virus.

U.S.-funded clinical trials supported their position in 2007, leading to PEPFAR’s increased funding of male circumcision over the past four years. It has been an uneven effort: The U.S. government helped pay for the circumcision of 1 million African males from 2008 through 2011, and President Obama has called for a goal of circumcising 4.7 million African men by the end of 2013.

Lewis and Halperin likely see the goal as laudable, but the time taken to reach it is lamentable. “Tinderbox” will help readers understand why the two men feel so strongly about this, and why the period ahead is so critical in fighting the epidemic. Millions of lives depend on the effort.

John Donnelly, a former Boston Globe reporter who covered global health from Washington and Africa, is the author of a forthcoming book, “A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa.”

© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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