Today in History: AIDS in Black Africans

Jim Burroway

March 19th, 2008

As we’ve mentioned before, by the time 1983 came around the panic surrounding the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis had already reached epic proportions, with anti-gay groups and individuals pinning everlasting blame on the gay community. When they had bothered to notice, some would acknowledge that Haitians, drug addicts and hemophiliacs were also at risk for AIDS. But it was the gay community which bore the brunt of the responsibility for the new “plague.” In 1983, Pat Buchanan would thunder:

The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.

Ignorance among many Americans was running a fevered pitch, but things were very different in Europe. Belgian and French doctors had noticing something for quite some time: they had been treating wealthy African immigrants from their former colonies who were suffering from diseases which were remarkably similar to those reported by AIDS patients in America. Finally, twenty-five years ago today, on March 19, 1983, the rest of the world would learn what they have been noticing with the publication of this brief letter in the respected journal The Lancet:

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in Black Africans

SIR,-Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has been described in homosexual or bisexual men, in drug addicts, in haemophiliacs, and in Haitian immigrants. To our knowledge there is no report of AIDS and opportunistic infections in previously healthy Black Africans with no history of homosexuality or drug abuse.

Tables I and II show the clinical and immunological data on five Black patients seen in Brussels and who were from Central Africa (Zaire and Chad). Three of them had been living in Belgium, for between 8 months and 3 years. All were of good socioeconomic status. They presented with prodromes of fever, weight loss, and generalised lymphadenopathy, and extensive investigations did not reveal any neoplasia. Patients A and E died; the three survivors are still ill.

These patients fulfilled all the criteria of AIDS. …

This preliminary report suggests that Black Africans, immigrants or not, may be another group predisposed to AIDS.

Indeed, the world would soon learn the horror that had been stalking the Congo river region for decades. This small letter to the editor would later prove to be the canary in the coalmine. It is the first published indication of a pandemic which had already taken countless lives in Zaire and Chad, and would very soon engulf much of an entire continent.

Source:Clumeck, N.; Mascart-Lemone, F.; de Maubeuge, J.; Brenez, D.; Marcelis, L. Letter to the editor: “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in Black Africans.” Lancet 1, no. 8325 (March 19, 1983): 624.

See also:
Opportunistic Infections

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