HIV: A Link to Its Origins


It is an increasingly dangerous time we are living in, as war, disease, and human strife are running rampant around the globe. As conflicts rage across the world in Syria, Iraq, and other hotspots, disease has caused numerous deaths, and raised the level of concern over a worldwide epidemic.   Recently, the Ebola virus has spread from Africa to the shores of the United States, moving the issue from one which was occurring somewhere else, and not capturing the attention of the public at large, to center stage, as fears grow about it spreading throughout the United States.  Unfortunately, Ebola is not the first disease to emerge from the countries in Africa.

In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS virus gained wide spread attention as its effects were felt across the world, especially in the United States. At first, it was believed to be a disease which only affected the gay community, but soon it was learned the disease had no boundaries or discriminations. Many people have been affected by this dreadful disease, with over 76 million people infected and approximately 36 million deaths directly attributed to the disease. Now, new evidence may have been uncovered which may point to the origins of this pandemic.

An international research group comprised of individuals from the University of Oxford in Britain and the University of Leuven in Belgium have found ground zero for the HIV/Aids disease.   In a report published in the journal Science, researchers believe that the epidemic began in Kinshasa, what is now the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1920s. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) was recognized in the 1980s as a serious problem, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it has been reported that 1 in 20 adults have been infected with the disease. In the report the researchers explain that HIV has been transmitted from primates to humans at least 13 times. They conclude the pandemic in today’s world can be traced to one particular transmission involving the strain HIV-1 group M.


As opposed to other studies which used a piecemeal approach to analyze the genetic history of HIV by studying specific strains from specific locations, the current study took a different approach. According to Professor Oliver Pybus of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, the group analyzed all available data using “the latest phylogeographic techniques” which enabled the conclusions to “a high degree of certainty” of where and when the HIV pandemic started.

This approach allowed the group to isolate the origins of the disease to Leopoldville in the 1920s, which is present day Kinshasa, the largest city and capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo located on the shores of the Congo River. By identifying a number of factors, utilizing historical data of the region, and comparing the rise of the disease, the group could clearly show how the disease spread from the city to other large population centers in Southern Africa, and from there to the rest of the world.

A huge contributor to the spread of the disease was the transportation system in the country including the railways and the access to the Congo River. In addition, there was many social changes which increased the impact of the disease and its spread throughout the world.   According to the report over 1 million people were using the cities railways, making it an ideal carrier for the disease.   These transportation systems carried the disease from the Congo to other populous locations throughout Africa.

From its earliest infection of humans in the 1920s, through the 1950s it had spread to almost the entire continent. Any regions with extensive contacts with Southern Africa in the 1950s likely saw an increase in infections. In addition, throughout the 1960s the independence movements in Africa led to social changes which increased the spread of the disease. During this time there were large numbers of sex workers, along with increased public health campaigns, and increased drug use all which contributed to the use of contaminated needles and unprotected sex which directly affected the spread of the disease.   In the beginning, the original transmission of the virus was due to improper handling of bush meat in the Belgium Congo causing the spread of the disease, which was compounded in the 1960s by the modernization of the transportation systems and the interaction of global societies.   These minor steps flow directly into the massive epidemic which was first identified in the 1980s and continues to the present day.


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