HIV, wrecking societies worldwide, is but a reflection of the modern lifestyle people have adhered to, though the question as to where does it originate from exactly has been tricky to answer. A new study has brought forth results suggesting that it was spread from Kinshasa, the city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
A team of researchers from the Oxford University in collaboration with scientists from the University of Leuven have attempted to show that HIV comes all the way back from Africa, from the DRC. They have focused their efforts on the genetic history of the HIV-1 group M pandemic, whereby the deadly virus propagated across Africa, gradually spreading its poisonous tentacles to the rest of the world; it was the HIV-1 group M that marks the event whereby a pandemic was triggered.
The results of the study indicate that group M’s common ancestor seems to have its roots in Kinshana, sprouted back in 1920 – the journey from primates and apes to humans. From the 1920s to the 1950s, a toxic combination of factors have propelled the HIV to around the globe: urban growth, railway networks set during the Belgian colonial rule, sex trade, just to mention a few. The authors have further highlighted how the railway connections have particularly contributed to the spread of the virus.
The researchers thoroughly examined all the evidence that has been gleaned on the subject. They were assisted by sophisticated phylogeographic techniques which allowed for the estimation of the origin of a virus. As a result, the conclusions they drew are statistically significant. ”Our study required the development of a statistical framework for reconstructing the spread of viruses through space and time from their genome sequences,” said Professor Philippe Lemey of the University of Leuven’s Rega Institute, another senior author of the paper.
The researchers stated that the modifications in the social set-up after the independence in 1960 led to the migration of the virus to other parts of the world, as small groups of the carriers of the virus infected the wider population. They also associated the pandemic with sex workers’ attitudes as well as public health initiatives which focused on campaigning against other diseases such that the hazardous use of needles became rampant.
Another author, Professor Oliver Pybus, said: “Our research suggests that following the original animal to human transmission of the virus (probably through the hunting or handling of bush meat) there was only a small ‘window’ during the Belgian colonial era for this particular strain of HIV to emerge and spread into a pandemic. By the 1960s transport systems, such as the railways, that enabled the virus to spread vast distances were less active, but by that time the seeds of the pandemic were already sown across Africa and beyond.”