Two European researchers have traced the origins of HIV/AIDS back to 1920 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Oliver Pybus, professor of zoology at the University of Oxford in England, and Philippe Lemey, assistant professor of immunology and microbiology at KU Leuven – University of Leuven in Belgium, published a paper on their research in October.
There have been different theories of the cause of the disease’s spread throughout Africa and when, but Lemey said in an email that “we now estimated where this virus emerged in the human population, how it initially spread and eventually transitioned into a pandemic.”
“Knowledge of the circumstances that facilitated the epidemic expansion can assist the development of effective education and prevention programs.”
According to the professors, the disease was able to rapidly spread throughout the region due to Kinshasa being a major hub of transportation at the time, especially with railways. Unsafe use of needles among sex workers and public health workers helped make the disease into a “full-blown epidemic.”
The researchers also noted that the diseases started in 1920 with 95 percent certainty, based on data they were looking at from 1909 to 1930. However, the biggest find in their research was pinpointing an exact location.
“The location of origin was open to speculation,” Lemey said about previous studies. “Some circumstantial evidence led to the suggestion that Kinshasa was the origin, but this was not the only (untested) hypothesis… We provide strong statistical evidence that Kinshasa is the location origin allowing us to align the genetic history with historical data.”
Other locations that have been studied in the past included Cameroon, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo.
HIV/AIDS didn’t get the attention of the world until it infected gay men in droves in New York City and southern California in the 1980s. The study did not go into why this was the case, but Lemey believes that because doctors didn’t have the disease on their radar, the epidemic in the ‘80s came as a shock to healthcare workers.
“The symptoms were not specific enough in Africa to trigger the alarm and lead to the identification of a new infectious disease,” Lemey said. “It took clusters of particular risk group patients with unexpected symptoms in several cities of the most medically advanced country in the world to alarm the medical world. Unfortunately, sensationalist press following these first reports led to an anti-gay campaign in those days.”
The disease was first known as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) in 1982. It was not renamed AIDS until 1986.