An international team led by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) professors has received a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the origins of HIV/AIDS. Rather than identifying the first HIV case, the project, "An International Collaboration on the Political, Social, and Cultural History of the Emergence of HIV/AIDS," would consider "larger historical, political, economic, social, and cultural relations and processes" that contributed to HIV's emergence. The team would include three HIV researchers (virologists Preston Marx and François Simon and epidemiologist Ernest Drucker) and six humanities scholars led by Professor William H. Schneider and Professor Didier Gondola, chair of the IUPUI history department.
Drucker stated that the project would place the medical, public health, and biological dimensions of HIV's origin in historical context. There was wide scientific agreement that immune viruses had been present among African chimp and monkey populations for tens of thousands of years. Fewer than 100 years ago, some of these evolved into viruses that affected humans. DNA sequencing has identified 12 strains, including HIV-1 and HIV-2, which have caused most of the epidemic.
The team would explore the social and cultural consequences of the introduction of western medicine shortly before the appearance of the HIV epidemic. Study topics included changes in great ape and monkey hunting; social transformations during colonialization; and western medical interventions, including immunization campaigns and blood transfusions, which facilitated virus transmission. Gondola, an expert in the history of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, would investigate the relationship of urbanization, migration, and gender on the emergence of AIDS. Project activities would include fieldwork and research into archival records and colonial and medical service records in Europe and Africa.
By applying the "critical humanities approach," the research team aimed to develop a model that would help medical science and public health researchers understand disease emergence.