Local Knowledge

The Invisible Cure
Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS
Helen Epstein
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 352 pp.

Recently, Africa has become a continent of great concern to much of the American public, riveting the attention of both philanthropists and political activists. Indeed, one of the covers of the July edition of Vanity Fair (there were several) pictured Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu embracing Hollywood celebrity Brad Pitt. The entire issue was dedicated to Africa and edited by rock-star-turned-activist Bono. Why this renewed interest in the problems of Africa? Is the West’s fascination—and America’s in particular—just a colonialist reflex? Or is it a positive consequence of globalization?

Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS is an excellent primer on the complicated relationship between American medical science and philanthropy, and the public-health crisis in Africa.

Everyone seems to know what Africa needs, but sometimes I think our minds are not really on it. Most of us see only Africa’s contours, and we use them to map out problems of our own. Africa is a career move, an adventure, an experiment. It fades into an idea.

Indeed, for Epstein herself, Africa began as a career: she first went to Uganda to do research as a scientist for a biotech firm working on an AIDS vaccine. At the center of Epstein’s argument is a detailed discussion of how and why Western...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Melissa M. Matthes teaches in the Government/Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.