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AIDS at 30: A History by Victoria A. Harden

AIDS at 30: A History

by Victoria A. Harden

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Harden’s work here is both encompassing and well-documented. With the goal of giving a non-biased history of HIV/AIDS, from its initial recognition on through steps toward scientific description, diagnosis, and progressions in research and treatment, Harden focuses on providing a broad view of the virus. Based toward the average reader’s understanding of the science, as well as a treatment of the political, social, and cultural forces at work in the background, the book provides a great deal of material. Rather than give a great deal of depth to any one person or subject, Harden also moves quickly, allowing for the casual reader to focus in on gaining an overall understanding of the history and issues while knowing enough about the details to find more information. The results are impressive: her work is detailed and well-documented, without providing so much information as to be either overwhelming or confusing.

One of the most impressive features of this work is the attempt to look at the steps toward progress, both backwards and forwards. Rather than detailing only developments that led directly to progress in description, diagnosis, and treatment, or even on developments that directly worked against such progress, Harden endeavors to give an even view to each step forward in history, wherever it might have led (or be leading). This has a couple of effects—first, readers understand the complex cycle of steps and procedures and groups that led toward eventual progress rather than seeing the historical progression as a clearly linear path toward progress. Second, and perhaps more importantly, readers see the ways in which single individuals, political groups, private and public organizations, and societal feelings influenced work on HIV/AIDS. While it’s true that these forces are all acknowledged in other works on HIV/AIDS, they’ve rarely been treated with such unbiased and careful an eye toward cause and effect and detail. Harden also examines the forces which have worked directly against progress, notably including discussions of groups who’ve denied that HIV/AIDS is an actual phenomenon or problem, as well as groups who’ve denied that the virus is spread through sexual contact or that HIV has any relation to AIDS. By refusing to ignore these groups, Harden’s work shoes itself to be more determined than most to present the full picture.

Other features also make the work incredibly successful on a variety of levels. Extensive footnotes provide details for readers who might come to the subject knowing less or needing more information than the averagely informed reader. Glossaries also provide the meanings for the many acronyms that pop up in discussions, as well as meanings for both basic and advanced scientific terms (from HIV and virus on through terms like capsid and interferon). Similarly, these glossaries also provide translations for discrepancies in spelling that appear when one reads material on HIV/AIDS from separate regions and countries. And, of course, the work is current, having gone to press in 2011.

Of course, there are some weaknesses in the work. Because each reader brings a different knowledge base and because Harden is aiming for the middle, any reader is sure to be disappointed with some aspect of the discussion. Her section on communication/media, for instance, fails to mention Rent, which I believe was one of the fundamental cultural works to drive a wide-spread knowledge of HIV in my generation, which was less likely to have seen or know of Angels in America, which is her dramatic focus. Similarly, her discussion of literature is fairly absent, aside from attention to drama. I’ve no doubt that readers more versed in politics, economics, etc. would find other sections to be lacking in some of the depth that they’d hope for. But then, she couldn’t include everything, and her extensive footnotes are more than successful in directing readers to further avenues of discovery. A second major weakness is that, at times, Harden seems to be bending over backwards to be diplomatic. A glaring example of this is when she notes that one of the primary reasons drug companies held off on lowering prices for pharmaceutical treatments was that they had doubts that countries in Africa had the capabilities of fairly distributing the drugs, just as the citizens who needed the drugs might prove incapable of following the recommended treatment schedules. While neither of these points is without some basis, there’s no doubt that profit was a large part of the drug companies’ reluctance in easing distribution. And, obviously, there’s the question of how these points could be proved correct or incorrect without any attempt at fair and affordable distribution. Lastly, Harden moves so quickly through the different issues that an uncareful reader can easily miss important developments and figures (for instance, the initial formation of UNAIDS, the release of Life Before the Lifeboat (2009), and the fact that Latin America is the one region in which newly documented cases of AIDS have been steadily on the rise since the beginning).

In the end, though, these are insignificant weaknesses when compared to the breadth and magnitude of the work at hand. Harden’s discovery and documentation of the first three decades of HIV/AIDS as a global issue, affected by political and social factors, is as impressive as it is necessary, along with being well-written and accessible. There’s no doubt in my mind that any reader who searches this book out, for what it is, will be impressed and find that their time was well-spent and necessary. Recommended. ( )
3 vote whitewavedarling | May 20, 2013 |
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"Award-winning medical historian Victoria A. Harden approaches the AIDS virus from philosophical and intellectual perspectives in the history of medical science, discussing the process of scientific discovery, scientific evidence, and how laboratories found the cause of AIDS and developed therapeutic interventions. Furthermore, her book defines AIDS as the first infectious disease to be recognized simultaneously worldwide as a single phenomenon."--Jacket.… (more)

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