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Pulitzer Center Update December 2, 2014

This Week: Origins of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic


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A scientific detective story that crisscrosses the globe, tracing the origins of HIV and its lessons...

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Today is World AIDS Day, a grim reminder that the disease has already claimed more than 30 million lives. Fittingly, the day will be marked by the U.S. premiere of Pulitzer Center grantee Carl Gierstorfer's remarkable new documentary that traces the origins of today's epidemic to Belgium's brutal colonial occupation of the Congo in the early 20th century.

Researchers now believe the first transmission of AIDS—from chimpanzees to humans—occurred around the year 1908, decades before the first cases were known. Carl's documentary looks at how scientists reached this conclusion and further explores the colonial history of the Congo to explain how the disease spread. By the time the Congolese celebrated their independence in 1960, the pandemic was already a ticking time bomb, ready to explode.

The Rise of the Killer Virus airs this evening on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. and again on Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. Another version of the documentary, The Bloody Truth, is airing on networks in Europe.


Turkana Boy, who lived 1.6 million years ago near the shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana, is one of our oldest ancestors. The discovery of his remains 30 years ago by a team headed by renowned paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey is considered one of the most significant archaeological finds ever. But despite being among the world's richest archaeological treasure troves, the Turkana region remains mired in poverty.

That, however, may soon change. As Pulitzer Center grantee Jessica Hatcher notes in a cover story for the international editions of Newsweek and in her new e-book, "the same earth that nurtured human life has fostered another highly-prized commodity: that of oil."

The money is already starting to flow, but so far precious little of it is finding its way to the impoverished inhabitants of the arid Turkana region. Jessica's book Exploiting Turkana: Robbing the Cradle of Mankind is an eloquent, in-depth examination of the how the scramble for resources risks the ransacking one of the most historic places on earth.


Last month's agreement between the U.S. and China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was a welcome development, but even more significant over the long term may be the Chinese government's surprising embrace of religion as a potential ally in the struggle against environmental degradation.

As Fred de Sam Lazaro reports in this segment for the PBS NewsHour, "China's omnipresent and officially atheist Communist Party appears to be actively supporting traditional culture as a way to lead people back toward a more environmentally friendly lifestyle."

Fred's story draws on the documentary Searching for Sacred Mountain that was co-directed by Pulitzer Center grantees Gary Marcuse and Shi Lihong, part of an ongoing Pulitzer Center project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation that examines the relationship between faith and public policy in China and elsewhere.

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor


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