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Kinshasa: the Origin of Aids

Oct 03, 2014 05:14 PM EDT
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The origins of the AIDS global pandemic has been traced to the 1920s in a small city called Kinshasa. Now an international team of scientists are saying that this information can help us better understand the history of the deadly disease.
(Photo : Flickr: Jon Rawlinson )

The origins of the AIDS global pandemic has been traced to the 1920s in a small city called Kinshasa. Now an international team of scientists are saying that this information can help us better understand the history of the deadly disease.

According to a report and series of studies recently published in the journal Science, a "perfect storm" of population growth, sex, and railway systems in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo took the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and spread it into a full blown AIDS pandemic.

Using archived samples of HIV, researchers traced the virus' genetic code to its historical source, which apparently was the African city of Kinshasa in the 1920s.

"You can see the footprints of history in today's genomes, it has left a record, a mutation mark in the HIV genome that can't be eradicated," Oliver Pybus from the University of Oxford told the BBC.

It has long been known that HIV is a mutated version of a chimpanzee virus, known as simian immunodeficiency virus. Some had theorized that the virus had jumped through the consumption of monkey brains - a strange delicacy among old-money elitists in Africa. However, the international team says it was far simpler, with the first case of zoonosis (animal-to-human transmission) occurring when a Kinshasa citizen made contact with infected blood when handling bush meat.

And unfortunately for the world, Kinshasa, part of the "Belgian Congo," was booming.

"It was a very large and very rapidly growing area and colonial medical records show there was a high incidence of various sexually transmitted diseases," Pybus said.

One huge problem was that medical clinics were relatively new in the region, and many still did not practice needle sterilization - effectively spreading disease even while they tried to treat it.

The railways were another huge problem. According to the study, by the 1940s, around one million people were using Kinshasa's railways.

Experts are quick to say that this report was a "fascinating read," but its importance to current pandemic containment may fall by the wayside. HIV prevention tactics currently being used, including regular screenings and safe sex programs, appear to be the best options the world has for keeping the AIDS problem under control.

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