A.I.D.S. has been with us for a couple of decades now, but how much do we know about it? Its story has unfolded through countless articles across space and time, making it a little hard to follow.
Enter Elizabeth Pisani, an epidemiologist (and excellent story-teller) who's been in the thick of the international fight against AIDS from its earliest days. In The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS, she gives the straight dope on what happened -- where, when, and why -- with a focus on using data and evidence to track how the virus is spread, and on how to use that knowledge effectively to stop it. She has no time for euphemisms. Both liberal hand-wringing about stigmatizing affected groups and conservative/puritanical fear of the realities of sex and drugs can be obstacles to solving the problem.
The central dilemma is whether or not to push the claim that everyone is at risk. Pisani argues (with some impressive evidence to back her up) that HIV doesn't spread efficiently enough to stray very far from the high-risk groups: sex workers, men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and people in southern and eastern Africa. The problem is that when you admit that AIDS won't kill us all, it's harder to drum up the sympathy (hence funds) necessary to effectively fight it, but when you exaggerate the proportion of so-judged "innocent" victims, you wind up with funds that have strings attached -- strings which tie your hands away from doing the very things that have been shown to prevent the spread of HIV: getting clean needles to drug users (including in prison), and getting sex workers and Africans to use condoms.