The best books for understanding Africa’s AIDS pandemic (and feeling hopeful)

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m the global health reporter for The New York Times, the latest iteration in 30 years as a foreign correspondent. I’ve covered wars and humanitarian disasters, but it’s health stories that have always drawn me most. Health stories are intimate and personal, but they’re also about politics and economics, and social norms – about power. I’ve written about the Zika virus crisis in Brazil, child malnutrition in India, teen suicide in the Arctic – but no story has drawn me in and kept me riveted like Africa’s AIDS pandemic has over the past 25 years. I intend to keep reporting on it until the day a cure is found.


I wrote...

28: Stories of AIDS in Africa

By Stephanie Nolen,

Book cover of 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa

What is my book about?

28 is a powerful record of the African HIV pandemic and the courageous activists who stanched it. It’s a collection of human stories – one for each of the million people who were living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa when it was published. 

28 tells us how the virus works, spreads and, ultimately, kills. It explains the connection of HIV-AIDS to conflict, famine, and the collapse of states; shows us how easily treatment works for those lucky enough to get it; and details the struggles of those who fought to stay alive with little support. It makes vivid the stories of those who maintained courage, dignity, and hope against horrendous odds.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of HIV & AIDS: A Very Short Introduction

Stephanie Nolen Why did I love this book?

This book is exactly what the title promises, and a great place to start.

It’s written by a Swazi health economist who has worked on HIV in Africa for more than 30 years; I have learned a lot from Whiteside and his research over my years of covering this issue. The book looks at the biology and epidemiology of HIV, and also at all the ways it shapes societies.

Whiteside takes complicated concepts of population dynamics, sexual networking, AIDS, and geopolitical security and explains them briskly, clearly, concisely. His focus is the global AIDS epidemic, but his own work and the book are both deeply rooted in Africa.

By Alan Whiteside,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked HIV & AIDS as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2008 it was believed that HIV/AIDS was without doubt the worst epidemic to hit humankind since the Black Death. The first case was identified in 1981; by 2004 it was estimated that about 40 million people were living with the disease, and about 20 million had died. Yet the outlook today is a little brighter. Although HIV/ AIDS continues to be a pressing public health issue the epidemic has stabilised globally, and it has become evident it is not, nor will it be, a
global issue. The worst affected regions are southern and eastern Africa. Elsewhere, HIV is found…


Book cover of To End a Plague: America's Fight to Defeat AIDS in Africa

Stephanie Nolen Why did I love this book?

I’m going to say right off the top that this book is not well written: it’s turgid and florid and hard to follow. But it’s also recent, unlike most of the books on my list, and it’s the first comprehensive accounting of PEPFAR, the extraordinary US intervention into the African pandemic.

It’s impossible to understand the huge shift in the dynamic of the pandemic without understanding how massively George Bush’s decision to support HIV treatment in Africa changed – well, everything – and Bass is the first writer to try to really dig into that story.

By Emily Bass,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To End a Plague as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Randy Shilts and Laurie Garrett told the story of the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the late 1980s and the early 1990s, respectively. Now journalist-historian-activist Emily Bass tells the story of US engagement in HIV/AIDS control in sub-Saharan Africa. There is far to go on the path, but Bass tells us how far we've come." -Sten H. Vermund, professor and dean, Yale School of Public Health

With his 2003 announcement of a program known as PEPFAR, George W. Bush launched an astonishingly successful American war against a global pandemic. PEPFAR played a key role in slashing HIV cases and AIDS deaths in…


Book cover of Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome it

Stephanie Nolen Why did I love this book?

Craig Timberg was a reporting colleague when I was a correspondent in South Africa, and became a friend, one with whom I often passionately disagreed.

That’s why I suggest this book: it offers a very different perspective than mine. Craig and his co-author Halperin, an epidemiologist whose work had a big influence on Craig’s thinking, draw a clear through-line for how Western powers created the sparks of the African epidemic then vigorously fanned them.

A significant chunk of the book focuses on solutions (Halperin is a vociferous champion of male circumcision as an intervention to drive down the spread of the virus). It’s a brisk read that makes complex epidemiological dynamics accessible.

By Craig Timberg, Daniel Halperin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tinderbox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking narrative, longtime Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg and award-winning AIDS researcher Daniel Halperin tell the surprising story of how Western colonial powers unwittingly sparked the AIDS epidemic and then fanned its rise. Drawing on remarkable new science, Tinderbox overturns the conventional wisdom on the origins of this deadly pandemic and the best ways to fight it today.

Recent genetic studies have traced the birth of HIV to the forbidding equatorial forests of Cameroon, where chimpanzees carried the virus for millennia without causing a major outbreak in humans. During the Scramble for Africa, colonial companies blazed new routes…


Book cover of Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Stephanie Nolen Why did I love this book?

Wait, this book isn’t about Africa! No: it’s a biography of Dr. Paul Farmer, a co-founder of the medical humanitarian agency Partners in Health who died in 2022, and who had a major influence on how I, and thousands of others, think about providing healthcare in low-resource settings.

This extremely readable biography of Farmer focuses mostly on his work in Haiti – where Farmer did pioneering work on HIV treatment – and while it’s the other side of the world, it’s a crucial text for rethinking how we understand structural inequalities and access to health care.

The seeds of Farmer’s radical approach were taken by many idealistic medical workers into African HIV programs and indeed when he died, he was in Rwanda, where he co-founded the University of Global Health Equity.

By Tracy Kidder, Michael French,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mountains Beyond Mountains as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Tracy Kidder's critically acclaimed adult nonfiction work, Mountains Beyond Mountains has been adapted for young people by Michael French. In this young adult edition, readers are introduced to Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard-educated doctor with a self-proclaimed mission to transform healthcare on a global scale. Farmer focuses his attention on some of the world's most impoverished people and uses unconventional ways in which to provide healthcare, to achieve real results and save lives.


Book cover of Sizwe's Test: A Young Man's Journey Through Africa's AIDS Epidemic

Stephanie Nolen Why did I love this book?

Steinberg is one of South Africa’s great writers of narrative non-fiction; his work is oddly little known outside his home country and it was of huge value to me when I discovered it, not long after I moved to Johannesburg.

This book tracks the progress of a testing and treatment program in Lusikisiki, which had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Part of the story is told through the eyes of a white doctor who expects that, once treatment is there, everyone will seek it out – and a young Black man named Sizwe, clever and successful, who shows all the reasons why HIV response is not as simple as opening up a clinic.

Steinberg’s book probes into some of the messier, less-well-understood dynamics that have driven the pandemic, and features voices rarely heard outside a community like Lusikisiki.

By Jonny Steinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sizwe's Test as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the age of twenty-nine, Sizwe Magadla is among the most handsome, well-educated, and richest of the men in his poverty-stricken village. Dr. Hermann Reuter, a son of old South West African stock, wants to show the world that if you provide decent treatment, people will come and get it, no matter their circumstances.

Sizwe and Hermann live at the epicenter of the greatest plague of our times, the African AIDS epidemic. In South Africa alone, nearly 6 million people in a population of 46 million are HIV-positive. Already, Sizwe has watched several neighbors grow ill and die, yet he…


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Medical Hostages

By Shawn Jennings,

Book cover of Medical Hostages

Shawn Jennings Author Of Locked In Locked Out: Surviving a Brainstem Stroke

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Why am I passionate about this?

The five recommended nonfiction books on my list profoundly affected my life in my time of need. I struggled when a minor accident led to a brainstem stroke and being locked in at 45. How would I find happiness now? How can I go on? These five books gave me the strength to work hard, accept what couldn’t be improved, and be grateful for each day of good health. I hope the recommended books will help you prepare for the day your life will change...and it will.

Shawn's book list on accepting and moving on from a tragedy

What is my book about?

Duke, the leader of a bike gang, is in custody for murder. He plans an escape by feigning illness and hospitalization. But an unexpected turn of events results in two gang members and Duke holding a medical floor of patients hostage. Patients will die if the police don't meet their demands within hours.
The drama follows Duke and Drs. Mindy Fletch, director of the Intensive Care Unit, and Craig Russell, a family medicine resident, in this tense hostage stand-off.

Will the bikers find freedom? Will hostages die? Can Mindy and Craig survive and prevent deaths? In times of stress, people often discover new directions and strengths.

Medical Hostages

By Shawn Jennings,

What is this book about?

Duke, the leader of a bike gang, is in custody for murder. He plans an escape by feigning illness and hospitalization. But an unexpected turn of events results in two gang members and Duke holding a medical floor of patients hostage.


Patients will die if the police don't meet their demands within hours.


The drama follows Duke and Drs. Mindy Fletch, director of the Intensive Care Unit; and Craig Russell, a family medicine resident; in this tense hostage stand-off.


Will the bikers find freedom? Will hostages die? Can Mindy and Craig survive and prevent deaths?


In times of stress, people…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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