Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

How colonization brought disease to Africa – and the ways it has influenced today’s global health story

By Vaseline May30,2024
How colonization brought disease to Africa – and the ways it has influenced today’s global health story

Remember this tweet:

“Going to Africa. I hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

While flying from New York to South Africa in 2014, a woman named Justine Sacco decided it would be hilarious to tweet these sentiments to her 175 followers. The post went viral and ultimately cost Sacco her job and livelihood.

While today we can look at a comment like this and see why it is abhorrent, it wasn’t that long ago that AIDS was seen as the ‘African disease’ – thanks to the Western media and a lack of healthcare funding in the entire continent. In addition to misinformation growing like wildfire, many people thought the same way Sacco did.

This begs the question: why are the diseases that affect everyone seen as diseases that only occur in Africa? Although not all details about the origins of HIV and AIDS are fully outlined, the story of who suffers from the virus and the syndrome today attached itself too easily to black African people, because Africa for a long time did not have access to the global microphone . This meant that people like Justine Sacco could say whatever they wanted because their assumptions and harmful stereotypes were the norm.

What is a bit hypocritical, however, is that when we look at the diseases that have left their mark on the African continent, some of them came on a ship or were spread by colonizers.

Let’s dive into that discussion, shall we?

The diseases that colonialism brought to Africa


As with many diseases, it is difficult to say where exactly cholera comes from. Texts from Greece and India from the 4th and 5th centuries BC describe a condition with similar symptoms to cholera. The first recorded cholera pandemic (a rapid spread of a disease over a large region or continent) occurred in 1817 in India and spread across Asia, affecting countries such as Thailand, China and Japan. Some East African countries along the Indian Ocean saw the disease reach their shores, but the second pandemic hit Africa hard. There have been seven cholera pandemics throughout history, and it was the second that really gripped Africa.

Historian James L.A. Webb Jr. from the Cambridge University Press explains the origins of the second pandemic in Africa: “the biggest impact started in Algeria, where French troops inadvertently introduced the disease, and then spread to neighboring Morocco and Libya.”

Each pandemic subsequently dug its claws deeper and deeper into the continent. Today, Africa is witnessing the seventh pandemic, which hit the continent in the 1970s. We continue to see outbreaks consistently across the continent, with the most recent occurring in southern Africa due to unpredictable weather patterns.


Meningitis has its origins in Geneva, with the first outbreak of the disease in 1805. Although not much has been documented about meningitis’ route to Africa, historians believe it was linked to colonialism. Especially since the first case of meningitis on the continent was reported among French troops in Algeria in 1840, just ten years after they began colonizing the country and not long after the disease made its way through Europe and America. Today, meningitis is prominent in West Africa, and the African CDC reports that an estimated 30,000 cases are reported annually on the continent.


The diamond rush in South Africa in the 19th century brought with it many injustices that we can’t even begin to elaborate on (although we will sneak in that the most expensive diamond in the world currently in Buckingham Palace belongs to South Africa ). One of these injustices was the introduction and spread of venereal syphilis to the country’s coasts.

According to the University of Cape Town’s pathology department, the disease was introduced through the Cape Coast by sailors, soldiers and European settlers in the 17th century. This led to an epidemic (a rapid spread of diseases) in the 19th century, which was directly related to the diamond rush and later to the gold rush.

Diseases that spread because of colonization

Some diseases that originated in Africa and then spread throughout the world could have been much less harmful to the world had there not been colonization. Two that come to mind are AIDS and malaria. Both are long stories and fascinating to read if you have the time, but in summary this is how it happened.

The earliest we can trace AIDS is to the colonial era, early 20th century. The disease came from a hunter who consumed an infected chimpanzee in southeastern Cameroon and then became infected himself through a possible cut. However, it is argued that the disease might not have spread to become an epidemic across the country and the world had it not been for the colonialists strengthening their stay in Africa.

“It is now clear that the birth of the epidemic and its crucial early growth occurred during Africa’s colonial era, amid a massive invasion of new people and technology in a country where old customs still prevailed,” said journalist and clinical researcher Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin in their book. , Tinderbox. “European powers, engaged in a feverish race for wealth and glory, blazed trails along muddy rivers and into dense forests that had previously been traveled only sporadically by humans.”

Malaria, on the other hand, spread as a result of slave labor and forced relocations associated with colonialism. European slave traders brought the disease to their own countries—and to other countries they were colonizing, such as those in Latin America—as they took Africans from their homes and enslaved them in various regions.

What is also interesting to note is that some African countries were immune to the effects of malaria until colonialism took place. According to medical historian Randall M. Packard in The Journal of African History: “In the southern African country of Swaziland (now eSwatini), malaria was common before colonial intervention, but not fatal.”

Packard continues: “This was due to the immunity that can be acquired with repeated exposure. However, when the settlers arrived, they removed the Swazi residents from their homelands, forcing them to move to lowlands with larger mosquito populations.”

Damaging Stories

One of the main problems with diseases perceived as ‘African’ diseases is that it makes it too easy for wealthy Western countries (who have unjustly acquired their wealth and resources from the continent and other now-marginalized regions) to opt out from diseases for which they have the resources.

It allows them to adopt the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach, making the countries of the Global South the face of these diseases because Western countries have the financial resources to tackle the problem in their to control their own country, while African countries do not have that.

Most recently, with COVID-19 in 2021, the spread of a beta variant mutation was quickly (and incorrectly) dubbed the “South African variant.” This variant emerged just when the Western world was receiving vaccines, but also just when life-saving shots were being hoarded from the countries of the South by these Western countries. Thanks to disinformation campaigns and a direct appeal from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who called the phenomenon a “vaccine apartheid,” the name disappeared.

However, it is important to note that stories are crucial in how global health is handled. Stories decide where the money goes and who sees the disease eradicated or researched. Harmful narratives make these diseases an African problem, allowing Western countries to get away with not helping to solve these diseases despite having the most resources.

Pinning diseases to Africa does nothing to end the disease’s existence altogether. We need to move away from seeing diseases as characteristics of specific countries (if not through scientific research to end them), and push for funding their eradication no matter where they are found.

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