4. Telegram From the Embassy in Zaire to the Department of State1

14070. Subject: (U) AIDS in Zaire. Ref: (A) State 141919;2 (B) State 271048.3

1. (C) Summary: A U.S.-Belgian medical team has completed a preliminary study of the auto immuno deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in Zaire. Their findings show a large number of active cases and what the team thinks is probably the world’s highest incidence of this fatal disease. End summary.

2. (U) A combined Belgian-American team has just completed three weeks of research on the auto immuno deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in cooperation with the Zairian Ministry of Public Health. American doctors Joseph McCormick of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Atlanta, Fred Feinson of National Institutes of Health (NIH) currently serving in Cairo, and Tom Quinn also of NIH working at Johns Hopkins, collaborated with Drs. Piot and Thallman of the Institut de Medecine Tropicale in Antwerp in this exploratory effort to determine the magnitude of the AIDS problem in Zaire. The study was initiated after 44 AIDS cases were confirmed among Zairians seeking treatment in Belgium.

3. (U) Immediately after arrival, the team consulted the Ministry of Public Health. Dr. McCormick, who has previous experience working in Zaire, worked with Dr. Ruppoll of the Belgian Embassy to explain the project to the Minister of Public Health and received the Minister’s permission to proceed with the study.

4. (C) Findings: For the next three weeks, the team members worked closely with Zairian and expatriate doctors at Kinshasa’s three major hospitals. Over 30 active cases were confirmed in this period of which 6 resulted in the patient’s death during the three-week period.

—Based on these findings, the team estimates that AIDS may be striking as many as 150 out of every million Zairians annually. This figure is over twice the incidence recorded in New York City which has the highest incidence in the U.S.

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—Unlike the U.S. where the majority of AIDS victims are men, Zairian victims are almost evenly divided by sex. Preliminary epidemiological research shows that the majority of the Zairian victims had frequent sexual contact with many partners, indicating heterosexual transmission as the principal means of infection.

—Cases were identified from several areas of the country, demonstrating that the disease is not limited to Kinshasa.

—A significant number of the cases identified by the team occurred among wealthy and prominent Zairians. It is also to be presumed that the 44 cases diagnosed in Belgium represent Zairians of substantial means as they were able to travel to Europe for treatment.

5. (U) Training: In the course of their research, the team established temporary facilities in two of Kinshasa’s hospital laboratories. Local physicians were instructed in AIDS diagnosis techniques and team members gave lectures at each of Kinshasa’s hospitals.

6. (U) GOZ reaction: Towards the end of the project, the team members again met with the Minister of Public Health. When informed of apparent magnitude of AIDS in Zaire, the Minister arranged a city-wide conference. His alarm at the team’s findings was in marked contrast to his initial feelings about AIDS in Zaire, namely that Zaire had many other more pressing diseases requiring its medical resources. The city-wide conference was well attended by the medical community as well as by the media. Coverage was given to the event in the next evening’s news and in Kinshasa newspapers.

7. (U) Next steps: The three-week project clearly demonstrated that a serious AIDS problem exists in Zaire. As a result of the team’s training efforts and with the supplies left in Zaire, local hospitals can now begin to diagnose and record AIDS cases. As early as next February, Dr. McCormick hopes to place a CDC epidemiologist in Zaire for more extensive studies.4 In the U.S., the number of reports of new AIDS cases has been doubling every 6 months. Due to the extended incubation period of the disease, which averages two years, a similar growth trend is likely in Zaire.

8. (C) Preliminary evidence shows that AIDS is more widespread here than in either the United States or Haiti. For the following reasons, Zaire had been suspected of being the birthplace of this new disease. Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer and a fatal variety of which often appears in AIDS victims, is found in its greatest frequency in a non-fatal variety in eastern Zaire. Furthermore, there is a connection with Haiti. After Zairian independence, a considerable number of skilled Haitians were recruited to serve as doctors, teachers, etc. in [Page 10]Zaire. A Haitian community still resides in Zaire. However, the research team found no evidence to support the theory that AIDS began in Zaire. No immediate connection between the two varieties of Kaposi’s sarcoma was found and more importantly no concrete evidence was found of AIDS in Zaire prior to the time it appeared in Haiti (believed to be approximately 1980). While there still may be the possibility that AIDS originated in Zaire, this theory remains unproven.

9. (C) Comment: We believe it likely that the Zairian AIDS situation will be raised in the U.S. press. Dr. McCormick informs us that in October the Baltimore Sun considered publishing an article stating that AIDS originated in Zaire. He further told us that a paper on Zairian AIDS victims treated in Belgium has been accepted by the prestigious New England Medical Journal. We suggest that inquiries relating to AIDS in Zaire be referred to CDC. If necessary, Department should point out that Zairian health officials and the Zairian medical community have cooperated and will continue to collaborate with American experts to understand and defeat this mysterious new disease which affects both countries.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D830661–0527. Confidential. Sent for information to the CDC, Brazzaville, Brussels, Bujumbura, Kigali, and Lubumbashi.
  2. In telegram 141919 to all diplomatic and consular posts, May 21, the Department transmitted information regarding the Prague World Peace Assembly. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, D830291–0653)
  3. See Document 3.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 5.