Epstein, Helen 1961–

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Epstein, Helen 1961–


Born August 6, 1961, in New York, NY; daughter of Jason and Barbara Epstein; married Peter, October 18, 1994. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1984; Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1991; London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, M.Sc., 1996.


Home and office—New York, NY. Agent—Wylie Agency, 250 W. 57th St., Ste. 2114, New York, NY 10107. E-mail—[email protected]


Consultant and writer. University of California, Davis, postdoctoral scientist, 1992; scientist conducting field research for Case Western Reserve University, University of California, San Francisco, Mulago Hospital, and Chiron Corporation, 1993-95; Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, lecturer in department of biochemistry, 1993-94; Panos Institute, London, England, programme manager for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), 1995-97. Visiting research scholar at Center for Health and Wellbeing, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 2004-05. Conducted research for Human Rights Watch, Open Society Institute, UNICEF, and other organizations.


John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellow, 2003-04; Carroll Kowal Journalism Award, Fund for the Advancement of Social Services, 2005; The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2007 and best science book of the year by Amazon.com.


The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2007, published as The Invisible Cure: What We Missed in the Fight against AIDS in Africa, Picador (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor to periodicals, including New York Review of Books and New York Times Magazine.


Abandoning a postdoctoral job in molecular biology, Helen Epstein went to Africa in 1993 to join the search for a vaccine that would prevent acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). While her efforts failed, they were the first step in what has become a long-standing commitment to the AIDS crisis. She has written many articles on the subject for newspapers and professional journals, and her 2007 book The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS "may be the most important book on AIDS published this year—indeed, it may even save lives," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Epstein's book examines the prodigious spread in Africa of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, as well as the various attempts by African and Western groups to stop it. Whereas in other parts of the world the virus is largely limited to certain high-risk groups, such as prostitutes and injecting drug users, in Africa it has affected millions of people with none of these risk factors. For years the reason for Africa's unusually high incidence of the virus seemed obscure, but Epstein and a growing number of other experts maintain that it is probably related to the African practice of maintaining several long-term sexual relationships at the same time, or what Epstein calls "concurrency." "It's not that people have so many sexual partners," Epstein told Harvey Blume in an interview for the Boston Globe. "They have fewer, on average, than people in the United States." The author observes that they are, however, more likely than people elsewhere to have more than one long-term partner at a time, which creates what she terms "a superhighway for the virus." In the course of her research, Epstein discovered a little-known study of Ugandan sexual behavior by African American academic Maxine Ankrah that suggested that Africans themselves held a solution to the epidemic. In Uganda, a grass-roots effort to reduce casual sex, care for sick people and orphans, and destigmatize the illness resulted in a significant decline in the spread of the virus, and it is this kind of pragmatic, homegrown action to which Epstein refers in her title as the "invisible cure."

Critical response to The Invisible Cure was widespread and included many favorable assessments. Abigail Zuger deemed it "an enlightening and troubling book" in the New York Times, and Malcolm Potts in the Population and Development Review described it as "lucid, scientifically accurate, and well referenced." Writing for the New York Times Book Review, John Donnelly admitted his impatience with most books in the field, which he found generally "too self-important, too polemical, too grim or too at odds with my experiences in the field." Epstein, in contrast, "teaches me things I didn't know," he acknowledged. Other writers highlighted the author's ability to make her reader understand the complexities of the disease and the international aid community's unsuccessful efforts to fight it. "In her hands," commented G. Pascal Zachary on Salon.com, "the subject is fresh, surprising and, perhaps most important, understandable in plain English." Some critics perceived weaknesses in the book—for example, some felt that Epstein should have devoted more attention to the correlation between male circumcision and a lower incidence of AIDS, and some said that her book is marred by a few factual errors and some faulty writing—but even these writers tended to retain a favorable opinion of the book on the whole. As Donnelly wrote, such faults "should not detract from the power of this sweeping book." Anthony Daniels, writing for the Spectator, summed up the book as "an important contribution not only to the literature of Aids but, by implication, to that of development economics."



Booklist, May 15, 2007, Donna Chavez, review of The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS, p. 8.

Boston Globe, July 22, 2007, Harvey Blume, "Q&A Helen Epstein."

Commonweal, September 28, 2007, Melissa M. Matthes, "Local Knowledge," p. 28.

Journal of Clinical Investigation, November, 2007, John P. Moore, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 3146.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 205.

Library Journal, April 15, 2007, Janet A. Crum, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 110.

London Review of Books, September 20, 2007, Hilary Mantel, "Saartjie Baartman's Ghost," p. 6.

Nation, June 11, 2007, Andrew Rice, "An African Solution," p. 25.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2007, Cynthia D. Bertelsen, "The Politics of AIDS: Doctor Examines the Role of ‘Concurrency’ in the Epidemic in Africa," p. 1a.

Nature, May 31, 2007, Stephen Lewis and Paul Donovan, "Time for a Change? Two Books on the AIDS Pandemic in Africa Challenge Assumptions at the Heart of the UN's Response," p. 531.

New Statesman, September 24, 2007, Druin Burch, "A Cure for Everyone," p. 75.

New York Review of Books, August 16, 2007, William Easterly, "How, and How Not, to Stop AIDS in Africa," p. 24.

New York Times, July 3, 2007, Abigail Zuger, "AIDS in Africa: Rising above the Partisan Babble."

New York Times Book Review, July 29, 2007, John Donnelly, "The Plague of Nations," p. 16.

Population and Development Review, September, 2007, Malcolm Potts, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 631.

Publishers Weekly, March 5, 2007, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 51.

Science News, June 9, 2007, review of The Invisible Cure, p. 367.

Spectator, November 24, 2007, Anthony Daniels, "No Simple Solutions," p. 56.


Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (May 17, 2007), G. Pascal Zachary, review of The Invisible Cure.

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