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On the trail of the AIDS epidemic



Last modified: Sunday, March 11, 2012
While covering Africa for the Washington Post, Craig Timberg had a lot of sources, but few were as interesting as epidemiologist and medical anthropologist Daniel Halperin.

Timberg, now the Post's deputy national security editor, started his journalism career as a reporter at the Valley News in Lebanon and later worked at the Monitor, where he covered Concord City Hall and the 1996 presidential primary. Eventually, his work took him to Africa where, like many journalists working on the continent, he found himself writing often about HIV and AIDS.

It was while researching one of those stories that Timberg met Halperin. At first, he was just another source, albeit one with some unusual theories. Halperin, who now works at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had a reputation for questioning conventional wisdom about the factors fueling the spread of AIDS.

'As a reporter, we're drawn to counter-narratives,' Timberg said in a phone interview last week. 'If we can tell readers something they don't know, that's great.'

The pair believed that Halperin's extensive research and Timberg's storytelling skills could be combined into something compelling and, perhaps, useful to those trying to stymie the epidemic. Gaining support for their project, however, proved difficult.

They circulated the first version of their book proposal in late 2007 but struggled to attract publishers' attention. Still, Timberg took a leave of absence from the Post in hopes of salvaging the project. His timing, as it turned out, was terrible. The collapse of the economy early the next year forced Timberg and his wife to move their young family back to her home-

town in upstate New York.

It was there, in a tiny rented house, that Timberg found the book's lynchpin: A scientific journal article about new research that showed AIDS started in the Congo River Basin near the turn of the 20th century.

'Suddenly, there was this explosion of connections in my brain,' Timberg said.

'Once you see this narrative that spans over an entire century with ups and downs and obstacles, suddenly we had a story. In terms of crafting a book that ordinary people might find compelling, that was something close to a gift from God.'

Each chapter of the book, called Tinderbox, is laced with science - virology, epidemiology, the mechanics of circumcision - but the writing remains crisp and clear. The story is full of real, live people that help the reader understand African cultures, colonialism and the devastating effects of disease.

Timberg says it was tricky to strike just the right balance between science and storytelling, but his collaboration with Halperin served the final product well.

'I was a writer who was interested in the science,' he said. 'He was a scientist interested in the writing.'

(Meg Heckman can be reached at 369-3313 or mheckman@cmonitor.com.)