Book Review: Three Letter Plague


By now, followers of this blog will know that one book – a book about AIDS – prompted my medical career.

Earlier this year, I met a dynamic young History professor, who recommended I read Three Letter Plague by Jonny Steinberg.

Last week I finally read it. Sold as Sizwe’s Test in the USA, this book is intelligent, and excellently written.

The book follows the spread and attitudes regarding HIV and AIDS in a poor rural village in the Eastern Cape – specifically a relatively successful young adult who, despite being well-informed,refuses to test for HIV.

It is necessary to read it slowly, to rest frequently in order to ponder the concepts and allegories. It simply would not do to rush through the book. It is not a story or a novel – it is a study. And not simply a study of disease or epidemiology, but of sociology, of stigma, of shame; a study of culture and politics and heritage.

There is no spoon-feeding or simple conclusions, and at the end the conclusion you reach is yours alone.

As with any good book, rereading the prologue again at the end offers exceptional insight and closure.

Of particular interest is the author’s studies into the working of stigma and disease prevention or management. I love the focus on primary health, rather than addressing HIV only at hospital-level. I used to think that it was my duty to find a cure to AIDS, but perhaps it is my duty to cure the stigma, to manage the mismanagement.

Perhaps AIDS is not purely disease – perhaps AIDS is another symptom of a socially diseased Africa.

When the history if this great epidemic is written, will it be said that an untold number of people died, not because the plague was unstoppable, but because they were mortally ashamed? Will it be said that several southern Africans were decimated by a sense of disgrace?


  1. Cassie says:

    Thanks for this recommendation. It’s definitely not something I normally would read, but it sounds so interesting. What book god you interested in the medical field if you don’t mind sharing?

    1. The book was called 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen, I wrote a bit more about it here:
      Three Letter Plague is very interesting – it took a little will-power for me to stick to it too, since I don’t usually read such “academic” books, but it is definitely worth it.
      Thanks for visiting!

  2. Lovelyiskey says:

    I agree with Cassie. I don’t know if I would normally read this, but it does sound like quite a read. I appreciate your insight on how to read it. Those things make a difference. Some books just aren’t meant to be breezed through.

    1. Glad I could help, if you do end up reading it I would love to hear what your thoughts on it are. 🙂

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