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The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  858 Ratings  ·  61 Reviews
In 1993, Helen Epstein, a scientist working with a biotechnology company searching for an AIDS vaccine, moved to Uganda, where she witnessed firsthand the suffering caused by the epidemic. Now, in her unsparing and illuminating account of this global disease, she describes how international health experts, governments, and ordinary Africans have struggled to understand the ...more
Hardcover, 326 pages
Published May 15th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Aug 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing
You don't really think a book written by a molecular biologist and activist could be that would be wrong. This book is an amazing synthesis of sociology, anthropology, feminism, and public health. It speaks of the AIDs crisis in South and East Africa with amazing clarity. If you are remotely interested in the subject read this. If you are up to date on policy/developments in this region of the world it may be a little simplistic.
Morgan Dhu
Dec 05, 2017 rated it really liked it

Continuing my latest 'project' - bringing myself up to date on the global AIDS epidemic, the history, the science, and the realities of life with HIV - I picked up a book I'd seen recommended in several articles on AIDS narratives, Helen Epstein's The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight against AIDS in Africa. I was particularly looking forward to comparing Epstein's views with those expressed by Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin in Tinderbox, which also addressed the specific issues and
Mar 31, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
There were more than a couple of times during this book that I wished for more or better editing. However, the information about AIDS in Africa that she conveys is really what's important. I guess I'd thought that the problems with the AIDS epidemic in Africa was an unwillingness to use condoms. Although she does indicate that condom use could be greater, she also shows how that's not really the main problem; the main problem--long term sexual relationships with more than one partner (what she c ...more
Mar 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. I think the best part is Helen Epstein. Her perspective as a molecular biologist, turned public health advocate/sociologist is so rare, yet pivotal to unraveling the problem of AIDS in sub-saharan Africa. I really enjoyed her analyses of prior theories and why they have failed to fully explain the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Her writing is smooth and clear, yet very evidence-based. I only wish that the new theories she proposes, such as the importance of concurrent partn ...more
Mar 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
Well-done book. An excellent critique of the international response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Epstein examines the efforts of Western donors and African governments and finds both wanting. She doesn't try to do too much. The book is critical of the naive and condescending Western-funded programs which have been so ineffective. It is also critical of the African government policies that have contributed to the sense of shame associated with the disease. Epstein proposes no magic elixir, b ...more
Sep 26, 2012 rated it liked it
It took me longer than usual to get through Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure: Africa, The West, and The Fight Against AIDS than it does with other books, both on similar topics and not. While wholly readable and not overly academic in tone, Epstein provides a wealth of information on the subject of HIV/AIDS in Africa. She gives a multi-faceted look into the biology of HIV/AIDS and how various African countries have dealt with the epidemic. While it would be impossible to cover it all, Epstein ...more
Nov 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting perspective on the problems with AIDS programs in Southern Africa. Helen Epstein's interest was picqued when she went to Uganda in the early 1990's to do AIDS vaccine research and sees the difference in community response to the AIDS crisis. Her quest to get to the ground truth is amazing. I was worried that I would tire of reading about this topic (especially since the book is almost 300 pages) but I found that I really enjoyed the way she told her story. The chapter and ...more
Aug 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
More like 3.5 out of 4 stars, but will give it a 4, as I did enjoy it and it was a great pleasure to read it, which is not usual in non-fiction books.

I have read my fair share of books on HIV/AIDS and I always come out learning something new. What I loved about Helen Epstein's book was community-led solutions to dealing with HIV/AIDS will work so much more than top-down government funding projects. Unfortunately, with PEPFAR and other international aid, most of the money gets invested in models
Heather D-n
Oct 07, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Both personal memoire and background on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Helen seeks to answer the question that has been plaguing the world since the mid-eighties. Why is the AIDS epidemic in Africa so severe? Various researchers and authors have pointed to cultural, social, and biological reasons for the high prevalence of HIV in Africa. Epstein points to the cultural and political factors, such as the high rates of concurrent sexual relationships and the international aid communities tendency to ...more
May 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2011-goal-50
This is a telling book about how Western cultures try so hard to help, but only wind up hurting other cultures. The case argued here is AIDS relief in Africa. The double edged sword is that we want to help, but in doing so, we also tell them how they should do things when our cultures are vastly different. In many cases by forcing them to accept our methods we destroy not only their culture, but in many cases their social structures, economies, and political structures in the process. We need to ...more
Dec 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I think nearly everyone should read this - if they're going into health care, or public health, or working with HIV in the developed world or the undeveloped one. Helen Epstein really takes us through the history of HIV in Africa and the challenges in addressing it lucidly and with balance, without shying away from past failures or the good intentions (or bad) that fed those failures. Throughout the book she remains passionately convinced that we can do better, that we mustn't despair. The book ...more
Jun 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Enjoyed this much more than I ever expected to enjoy a book about AIDS in Africa. I kinda can't wait to share what I've learned about HIV with anyone who will listen ( = no one).

Also, infinitely more horrifying than HIV/AIDS is the disease mentioned in this passage:

"The first [patients] all had onchocerciasis, a parasitic disease affecting the skin and eyes, endemic in the tropics. Outside in the tea fields all day, the patients had been bitten by the blackfly that transmits the disease. They h
Dec 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
The invisible cure might be an interesting read for people who want to understand the HIV epidmeic in East and Southern Africa, because it goes to the heart of some of the major racist tendencies in epidemiology, behavioral and biomedical research that was funded for many years by the US and Europe-based NGOs. But it may also be informative in light of the release of the 2006-2009 HIV incidence data from the CDC showing that Black "men who have sex with men" have the largest increase in HIV inci ...more
Feb 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
I thought this book was really great. It really delved into the reasons HIV/AIDS has spread so far and so fast in Africa - and how the people there might be able to combat it.

The author had a lot of experience in the regions she wrote about, and she wrote about them well and with little bias. She seemed to cover all of the pertinent information and discuss the impact of HIV and AIDS and programs to combat the disease in Uganda and southern Africa.

I enjoyed it a lot. If you are interested in AIDS
May 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
in a world that is supersaturated with books/portrayals/accounts of the african aids epidemic, this one is a true gem. one of my committee members is mentioned in it a few times, and the documenting of sources and lists of references is impressive. it is very well-researched. i think you, well, everyone, should read it. one of the most realistic portrayals of a problem that despite being much-discoursed remains plangent. furthermore, this book doesn't buy into but rather critiques the whole "my ...more
Aug 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: People interested about the African AIDS epidemic....
The Author explains why the African rate of infection is higher than anywhere else... long term concurrent relationships creating sexual networks. The book touches on the topic of gender inequality without demonizing the African male or perpetuating negative stereotypes about African sexuality. The role Western interventions may have had in creating the stigma against AIDS victims is discussed. The Author also highlights the importance of home grown response to the epidemic (rather than top down ...more
Kelley Ross
May 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, history
The Invisible Cure sets up a timeline for HIV and AIDS and describes particular approaches towards treating/curing the disease that have or have not worked. Epstein does a great job of conveying the political, monetary, and religious aspects of the situation. This book is intelligent and enlightening, but was a bit repetitive at times. The parts I enjoyed most were the introduction and epilogue, where the author honestly confronted how she dealt with the sufferers of AIDS in the past, and how sh ...more
Nov 20, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
It turns out that mutual aid and community solutions are the way to stop the spread of AIDS, not Western intervention! WHO KNEW

I did learn that STDs spread more quickly and throughly through populations with stable long-term polyamorous relationships than through populations who have lots of one-time sex. Because HIV is only spread around once in 100 times the infected person has sex, they are much more likely to give it to their several long-term partners, who give it to their several longterm
This book took me forever to read, mainly because of the redundancy and poor editing. Epstein has clearly done her research on the topic of AIDS in Eastern and Southern African and comes to clear, logical conclusions, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. It's unclear whether it's a lack of editing or underestimation of the readers' intelligence that leads her to repeat details chapter after chapter, but the result is a frustrating and slow read. Nevertheless, the book posits numerous ...more
Jan 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
As a PCV I read this book looking for answers to an age old quest 'An Invisible Cure'. Although, I really enjoyed this book it left me probably even more disappointed. Of course I knew I would not find 'a cure', but what I was hoping for was some insight as to how I as a PCV could address the situation in Botswana-I didn't find that. All I found were things I already knew. I won't get too deep or political in this review, so I will just leave it at: A good read. Somewhat insighful to those who a ...more
Aug 11, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think the main lesson from Epstein's book is that earnest efforts to fight big health problems should start by looking at what is already proven to work. This is an incredibly important point that seems to elude the big charities and government agencies whether at home or abroad. Her story of AIDS prevention in Uganda is just one of a thousand about programs that are implemented, evaluated, shown to work and then left to die for silly reasons as the so-called experts then try out 59 new things ...more
Jul 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone who cares enough to read it.
Recommended to Kat by: My house-mates
Everyone should read this book. It is about AIDS. It is about post-colonial society is Sub-Saharan Africa. It is about people. It is about women. It is about men. It is about America, the government response to AIDS in Africa. It is about post-colonial society in Europe, the blood-on-our-hands effect. It is one of those books that, because of its brutally honest analysis of one thing, brings into clear view one hundred issues circling that one thing.
Apr 09, 2009 rated it really liked it
A great book for anyone interested in the HIV situation in Africa.i read this as preparation for working in Uganda.
As with all this type of stuff, you have to be a little objective when reading it as this is the kind of book that uses scientific statistics to prove the authors suggested public health methods.nethertheless, its gripping and shocking in the right places, also very read-able for anyone without a scientific background.
Dave Alt
Oct 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone Intersted in the plight of Africa
This book is an excellent primer for all of the pitfalls in the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. It is an easy read and accessible to even the most casual reader. It even bashes and praises my employer in the same paragraph. I must add that I don't agree with all Helen has to say, she sometimes contradicts herself, and she is short on any practical alternatives. That being said I do recommend it.
Feb 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, medical
A really excellent look at how the AIDS epidemic in Africa is in many ways out of control, thanks to misunderstandings about who is spreading the disease and how. The whole book is just such a wonderful, horrifying woven story of cultural differences, politics, and corruption in African countries and in the aid agencies formed to help. Epstein shows that while the colonizers have left, their fingerprints and inflicted wounds still echo loudly today.
Melissa Tabak
Dec 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I think this is one of the best books I've ever read about HIV in the African context. Epstein does well in dispelling the myth that Africans know nothing about HIV and are totally incapable of responding to it, which we see a lot in the media. She makes a fascinating case for Uganda and points out many of the flaws in international funding for AIDS programs. I would recommend this.
Nov 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Great book but very sad to hear all the lives lost due to misunderstood cultural issues, and widespread corruption and unnecessary bureaucracy. It was great to hear how Uganda lowered its own HIV rate without the programs designed by misguided moralists but the overall situation is disheartening. Definitely read if you have an interest in HIV, medical anthropology, public health etc.
Becca Stroebel
Aug 18, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone remotely interested in the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Shelves: non-fiction
Epstein presents a thoroughly readable, engaging discussion of the realities of confronting HIV/AIDS. She discusses the challenges of using Western techniques to confront AIDS in Africa and offers solutions using successful examples. I really enjoyed her ideas and found it easy to read. However, fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS is a complicated issue and her answers seem a bit easy.
Mar 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
A slew of important information about how the AIDS crisis emerged in Africa and how so many governments, NGOs and drug companies helped let it happen through misplaced policies and practices, politics, or sheer ignorance. Epstein is a scientist but also a journalist, and this is a very accessible, nonacademic critique.
May 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Informative and educational. It's not as dry as you'd expect, though there's not much of a plot. More a series of stories and observations from Epstein's time in Africa and research. It starts out fairly scientific and medical research oriented, but it becomes a much more enjoyable, fast read when it turns more towards social and public health issues than a cure or vaccine.
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Helen C. Epstein is Visiting Professor of Global Public Health and Human Rights at Bard College. She has worked for more than 20 years as a public health consultant in Uganda and other countries for such organizations as the World Bank, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch. Her book The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight against AIDS in Africa was a New York Times Notable Book and Amazon’s best ...more
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