Origins of HIV traced to Kinshasa


Although there are lots of conspiracy theories surrounding HIV, such as the hunter, colonialism and contaminated needle theories, researchers seem to have finally traced the origin of the virus to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the 1920s.

A group of researchers from Oxford University and the University of Leuven has pinpointed the DRC capital, Kinshasa, as the place where HIV was first transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic that would go on to touch some 75 million people in every corner of the globe.

In the report entitled ‘The Early Spread and Epidemic Ignition of HIV-1 in Human Populations’ and published in the Journal of Science, scientists claim that HIV originates from a single source in the DRC main city, formerly called Leopoldville, which is today a bustling metropolis of over 9 million residents.

“For the first time, we have analysed all the available evidence using the latest phylogeographic techniques, which enable us to statistically estimate where a virus comes from. This means we can say with a high degree of certainty where and when the HIV pandemic originated.

“It seems a combination of factors in Kinshasa in the early 20th century created a ‘perfect storm’ for the emergence of HIV, leading to a generalised epidemic with unstoppable momentum that unrolled across sub-Saharan Africa,” Nuno Rodrigues Faria, a researcher at Oxford University and an author of the paper is quoted as saying in the Journal of Science.

The study, based on analysing the subtle genetic differences between various subtypes of HIV, found out that the human virus had evolved from a simian virus infecting chimps which were hunted for food by people who had probably carried HIV with them into Kinshasa.

The report further relates the spread of HIV to the rapid social changes, such as an increase in commercial sex and the re-use of dirty syringes, aided the transmission of the virus which was also carried to distant parts of the Congo by the millions of passengers who used the newly built railway network, the scientists say.

They add that during those years, Kinshasa was reported to be one of the best-connected transportation hubs anywhere in central Africa. The researchers note that the initial spread of HIV closely followed transportation routes, especially railways.

“Alongside transport, social changes such as the changing behaviour of sex workers and public health initiatives against other diseases that led to the unsafe use of needles may have contributed to turning HIV into a full-blown epidemic,” narrates Rodrigues Faria.

The report further stresses that it was the geographic spread of the virus, coupled with growth of the infected population, that left a measurable imprint on the HIV genomes found in the various samples.

The report concludes that the news of HIV’s historical origins paint a picture of transmission that can help epidemiologists stem the spread of infections in the future.

Such knowledge of the circumstances that facilitated the epidemic expansion can assist the development of effective education and prevention programmes, say the experts.

The team, therefore, suggests more research to understand the role different social factors may have played in the origins of the HIV pandemic.

The report further suggests that research on archival specimens is needed to study the origins and evolution of HIV and research into the relationship between the spread of Hepatitis C and the use of unsafe needles as part of public health initiatives may give further insights into the conditions that helped HIV to spread so widely.

October 2014
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