By Dr Sam Okuonzi
NAFHA M. Ebrahimi raises a serious issue that needs to be addressed: The global stereotyping of Africa as the origin of disease (see the press July 12 â€œThe worldâ€™s ignorance about Africa is annoyingâ€).
Africa today has the highest disease burden, but this is not because Africa is the originator of diseases. Paradoxically because Africa is the victim of diseases that originated from outside it.
Thus, the profiling of Africa as disease originator should be fought with facts, education and exposure of those who perpetuate a shameful history of Africa.
As the recent global outbreaks of new diseases have demonstrated, infectious diseases originate from outside Africa: SARS and bird flu from Asia, and swine flu (H1N1) from Mexico. All old infectious diseases that ravage Africa today originated from outside. They came from domestic animals or other animals such as rats that became closely associated with humans.
Living closely with animals made it possible for germs to cross to humans, mutate and thrive as human-only diseases.
These diseases include: measles, TB and smallpox from cattle, related to cowpox. Influenza and whooping cough from pigs and dogs. Falciprum malaria which kills most Africans today, crossed from chicken and ducks.
Cholera crossed from cow manure to the human digestive system and plague which is a seasonal killer in Arua and Nebbi districts, crossed from rats to humans. Other diseases that also originated from animals are syphilis and gonorrhoea.
All domestic animals were domesticated in Eurasia, the continent that has been divided into two imaginary entities called Europe and Asia. Euroasia is where the worldâ€™s infectious diseases originated.
Three factors facilitated the genesis of the diseases in Eurasia. First, it was in the Middle East where domestication of plants and animals started. The idea spread or simultaneously evolved in the region and in the Americas.
Second, it was in Eurasia that the population grew rapidly, following the discovery of agriculture and production of abundant food.
Third, due to wars and the need to protect people from warriors, kingdoms developed into city states densely packed with people and animals, and surrounded by strong walls. This provided a perfect environment for germs to jump from animals to humans, to mutate into human germs and then to spread from human to human.
In Africa, domestication of animals, including cattle, arrived thousands of years after they were first domesticated in Eurasia. However, crucially for Africa, there were no dense populations such as those in city states where the infectious diseases could be â€œmanufacturedâ€.
Infectious diseases are â€œcrowdâ€ diseases. When infectious diseases attack humans, they either kill them or when the victims survive, they become immune to the diseases.
However, survivors pass on the disease to other people who are not immune, usually children or adults who have not been exposed.
When Europeans, who were immune, were doing their global exploration, trade and colonisation, they spread these infectious diseases around the world. That is how Africa came to get the diseases.
Captain Cook took typhoid to Hawaii in 1779. Spaniards took smallpox to Mexico in 1520 and by 1618 Mexicoâ€™s population had reduced from 20 million to only 1.6 million.
Euroasia was also itself devastated by these epidemics as one community passed them over to another.
In 1839, according to British medical records, six infectious diseases accounted for almost all deaths in Britain: TB, typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery and smallpox. No record or history of such diseases exists outside Euroasia before the advent of European adventures.
In Uganda, shortly after the arrival of European colonists, there was an explosion of epidemics of hitherto unknown diseases of smallpox, plague, gonorrhoea and syphilis. Later measles, cholera and typhoid.
Dr Albert Cookâ€™s analysis of diseases at Mengo Hospital from 1897 â€“ 1902 showed that 80% of disease ocurrence was syphilis.
In 1909, three health centres were built in Mulago, Mityana and Masaka, exclusively for the treatment of venereal diseases (syphilis and gonorrhoea).
In 1913, Mulago Hospital was completed and dedicated to treat venereal diseases. Big deal! Africa had its diseases such as sleeping sickness and yellow fever. But when you remove all diseases brought in from outside, it is clear that much of Africaâ€™s disease burden was from Europe and Asia.
Most people now take it that HIV originated from Africa, in line with the false global profiling of Africa as a disease origin. But that has not been proven to be so.
Western scientists have been working feverishly to establish a link between Africa and HIV, but have failed. They have resorted to two well rehearsed theories, with numerous versions. One is that before the 1930s, there was a â€œnatural transferâ€ of Sivian Immuno-deficiency Virus (SIV), a virus closely related to HIV.
It is carried by 36 species of African monkeys and apes, to humans through monkeys being eaten by Africans or monkey blood seeping into the wound of an African hunter and being transferred sexually to his wife. However, Africans have lived with monkeys for millions of years without any problem. Why now?
Two, during the 1960s and 1970s, through blood transfusion or polio vaccination campaigns, the same needles were used on thousands of people, thus helping to transfer viruses from one person to another.
However, the theory that cannot be discounted or disproved is that HIV was manufactured in a US military lab by American and British doctors.
It is alleged that local western doctors based in Africa were recruited to spread AIDS to Africans.
In Uganda, a local British surgeon based at Mulago Hospital, was said to be administering the virus to Ugandans. He was thrown out of the country in 1987.
The writer works with the African Centre for Global Health, Kampala and teaches public health at Makerere and Uganda Christian universities