Surprising Origins of the AIDS Pandemic

Surprising Origins of the AIDS Pandemic

In the 1980s, a new virus appeared in human populations in the western, industrialized world. Categorized as a “retrovirus,” this new illness muted into a number of forms, one of which was able to infect human populations widely. A new study shows that the virus was able to find this foothold on the African continent and then disperse more widely due to a number of factors that created a perfect storm of conditions for its spread.

Surprising Origins of the AIDS Pandemic
Photo; The parliament house in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974.

Tracking the History

Scientists at the University of Oxford and Leuven in Belgium are able to analyze the “family tree” of the HIV retrovirus, noting the mutations in the genomes as it developed. These efforts were able to track the virus back to its origins, which were found to be the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1920s. It came from a virus found in chimpanzees known as the simian immunodeficiency virus. Only one of the mutations of the virus was able to jump the species line to infect humans. It is believed that humans came into contact with it through handling bush meat. Bush meat is wild game that is killed for food. Although it is an important source of protein for poverty-stricken villages on the African continent, it can contain a variety of harmful pathogens. The meat is safe to eat after cooking or smoking. However, dressing the meat puts the hunter in contact with infected blood that can spread disease to the human population.

The Findings

Looking at the genetic markers of the virus, the scientists were able to determine four critical factors in its spread:

· Rapid Population Growth – In Kinshasa, formerly called Leopoldville, the population grew significantly in a short period of time.

· A Booming Closeness Trade – The arrival of a large number of male workers to Kinshasa changed the closeness ratio in the country to two males to each females. As a result, the love-making trade boomed.

· Poor Public Health Procedures – Unfortunately, as the population grew, the public health system was unable to keep up with the increasing demands. The evidence indicates that treatment for STDs and other diseases was lacking, and reuse of needles that should have helped patients recover only served to spread the new virus more rapidly.

· A New Transportation System -The Belgium government invested heavily in a railway that allowed many more people to travel easily throughout the area. As a result, opportunities for the virus to be transmitted to a larger population were increased dramatically.

These specific factors made it possible for the virus responsible for AIDS to make its way rapidly across the continent of Africa and eventually into the rest of the world. This information can be used to help governments implement more effective protocols to stop the spread of new diseases.