Review of Jonathan’s Engel’s “The Epidemic”

As promised, here is my review of The Epidemic:

The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS promises two things in its title: to explore HIV/AIDS both from a global and from an historical perspective.  This promise of comprehensive coverage is met with aplomb as Engel takes us on a dizzying tour of the trajectory of HIV/AIDS.  Starting with its alleged origins in Africa, he traces the vectors of the disease into the gay population in the U.S., on to IV drug users, then back across the ocean to talk about how it currently affects the developing areas of Africa and Asia.  Along the way, he discusses the politics, civil rights issues, and how the disease actually works.  Engel approaches issues from all angles, making sure all dissenting opinions and seemingly crackpot theories are mentioned.  He debunks myths, gives proper credit for important advances, and attempts to keep a neutral tone while discussing these hot-button issues.

The Epidemic is excellent because of its comprehensiveness.  Every area of HIV/AIDS is explored, and even unpopular theories are mentioned. This is helpful for understanding both the societal and cultural history of the disease as well as the policies that are, were, or were trying to be enacted throughout the US and the world.  In reading this book, the general public will be informed about HIV and AIDS in a way that they never have before, since Engel includes some hushed scientists and theories about HIV/AIDS.

If there’s one issue with the book, it’s around Engel’s desire to appeal to both an academic and a general audience.  In some parts of the book, he mixes metaphor meant to guide the layperson’s understanding with words that wouldn’t be out of place in graduate school examinations.  Also, he tries very hard during the book to keep a neutral tone, not revealing his political views or morals.  At times, however, this can come off as callous, and by stating the realities of the HIV virus and its effect on the world, he comes off a pessimist.  However, I believe he is just stating the facts as they were revealed to him in his research, and should be admired for the attempt to keep a neutral tone in a highly politicized issue.

I think this book is a fascinating look into the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Engel lays bare all the different aspects of the disease, so we get a picture of the different disenfranchised groups who have contracted HIV, and what has been done to make sure these groups have rights and a voice.  This would be a fascinating book for anyone who is looking to have a discussion about how different interest groups factor into responses to a disease, and how that can sometimes facilitate the disease’s management and cure, or sometimes it can delay or even abnegate curing a disease.   One of my favorite sections of the book is where Engel is describing two interest groups who are having a heated discussion about universal testing of US citizens to see if they carry the HIV virus.  The first interest group consists of public health officials, who have seen universal testing help with many other infectious diseases, and feel it will slow the growth of AIDS in the population if everyone who had the virus knew they did, and could be treated/quarantined, and their partners notified.  On the other side of the debate are those fighting for human rights, the social workers, who balk at the very idea of every individual’s right pushed aside for the good of the country.  Since I have one foot firmly planted in both camps, it was interesting to see it from both sides.

In conclusion, The Epidemic is the book I wished I would have read when I first started working with HIV and needed to understand my clients’ worldview better.  I would recommend it to anyone who will be working in HIV, whether in therapy, research, outreach, or prevention. It is available from Amazon and many other online and local retailers.

Diagram of HIV

Learn about MSP posts as they happen by following us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. You can also follow Craig VanKempen, the author of this post, @craigvk and make friends with us on Facebook.

Image thanks to Wikimedia Commons


About Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen

Craig VanKempen, LLMSW/MPH, is a sex educator and therapist practicing in the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. His professional interests include HIV, polyamory, compulsive sexual behavior, religion and sexuality, and GLBT issues.