Chimpanzees, AIDS and ecology

In today's NY Times (February 1, 1999), Lawrence K. Altman reports that scientists have discovered the origin of the AIDS virus in a subspecies of chimpanzee called Pan troglodytes troglodytes. The virus was transmitted to humans through exposure to blood in hunting or meat handling.

Although the article does not dwell on environmental issues, it does state that "As people disturb more and more animal habitats around the world, scientists say, there is a growing risk that they will be exposed to previously unknown disease agents." A geographic pattern of infected chimpanzees in the west African nation of Gabon led researchers to investigate hunting practices. They learned about "the incursion of roads into remote areas, mainly for logging trucks. People who once hunted to feed themselves are now slaughtering chimpanzees and other primates for sale in the 'bush meat' trade that is conducted over the new roads. The practice may be putting people at risk of continuing cross-species transmission of known and unknown viruses."

The lead researcher Dr. Beatrice Hahn speculates that chimpanzee hunting was confined to the remote bush areas in the past, and viral transmission were localized. But, "as traditional tribal life gave way to migration to cities, families were broken up, and commercial sex became more common. This led to greater opportunity to transmit the virus to more people."

The irony is that the very species which is responsible for the initial AIDS crossover has nearly been hunted into extinction, thus making research into a cure for AIDS more difficult.

There are a number of books that have called attention to how environmental changes can unleash new strains of super-viruses. Richard Preston's "Hot Zone" is one. Another is Laurie Garrett's "The Coming Plague." Garrett, a reporter for NY's Newsday, has produced a more scholarly work, but it has not prevented her from being labeled as a panic-monger. Gina Kolata, a NY Times reporter, with a consistent pro-government and pro-industry outlook, has accused such books of employing bogus science. Author Ed Regis has written "Stalking the Killer Viruses with The Centers for Disease Control" with the avowed purpose of debunking Preston and Garrett. A fawning Washington Post book review states:

"Regis . . .steadfastly refuses to fret, and takes on the increasingly popular apocalyptic notion that emerging diseases are somehow 'Gaia's revenge' on humanity for overdevelopment. He scorns Preston's idea that 'in a sense, the earth is mounting an immune response against the human species' and Garrett's notion that 'the microbes were winning.'"

In reality, Garrett relies very little on the Gaia hypothesis. She mainly presents documentation on the ecological, economic and social shifts that make super-viruses a new threat. A NY Times review by Michiku Kakutani accurately reports on her methodology:

"The use of DDT sprays to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes has similarly backfired, Ms. Garrett says, leading to declining diversity in the insect world and the eventual resurgence and spread of disease-bearing mosquitoes. Other man-made alterations to the environment, she adds, have also had unforeseen consequences. The building of huge dams in Egypt, the Sudan and Ghana seems to have led to rising numbers of the schistosome parasite and a concurrent rise in related diseases, just as deforestation in North and South America has led to changes in the region's flora and fauna, which in turn have led to significant shifts in the microbe population. One such shift, Ms. Garrett says, has contributed to the recent spread of Lyme disease, an ailment carried by the I. dammini tick, which has proliferated in denuded forest areas in conjunction with a rapidly expanding deer and rodent population freed from such natural predators as cougars and wolves.

"Social developments, too, Ms. Garrett says, have unwittingly aided the microbial assault on humans. The growing urbanization of third-world countries has created dense population centers where poverty, poor sanitation and overextended health care systems combine to create the perfect conditions for an epidemic. At the same time, cheap and accessible air travel has helped create a global village in which microbes can migrate from one remote ecosphere to another within days, even hours.

"The social factor in the spread of disease, Ms. Garrett suggests, has been especially pronounced in the case of AIDS. During the 70's, loosening sexual mores and intravenous drug use contributed to its swift spread in North America, while civil war, tribal conflicts and mass refugee migrations (accompanied by famine, malnutrition and increased prostitution) helped accelerate its march through sub-Saharan Africa. The unwillingness of governments to grapple quickly and directly with the epidemic further contributed to its rapid spread."

Will this new discovery have any effect on the thinking of the ruling class in the US and in Africa? This seems unlikely. US corporations continue to view Africa as a place where raw materials can be ripped from the earth without regard for environmental sustainability, while African governments make war with each other in order to establish who will be first in line to enjoy crumbs from the imperialist tables.

The scenarios presented in "Hot Zone" and "The Coming Plague" are not science fiction. They are rooted in the contradictions of late 20th century capitalism. If Marxists can not understand these contradictions and provide a way to resolve them, all living life is doomed.