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HIV Epidemic Could Have Started in Kinshasa, Researchers Pinpointed

Update Date: Oct 03, 2014 09:38 AM EDT

A combination of several factors could explain how the HIV epidemic started in Africa, researchers reported on Thursday. According to the scientists, there is evidence that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, was circulating Kinshasa, the capital city in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as early as the 1920s. Over the next decades, the virus had spread throughout the continent and the world.

"The fact that social changes were critical in the rise of the virus suggests that such changes may also be an important factor in combating epidemic spread," said study co-author Philippe Lemey, from the Rega Institute for Medical Research at Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium according to Philly.

Co-leader of the study, Oliver Pybus, a professor at Oxford University's zoology department, added, according to Reuters, "For the first time, we have analyzed 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."

For this study, the research team focused on one of the two strains found in humans known as HIV-1, which is also the more prevalent strain. By analyzing virus samples, the researchers concluded that this particular strain could have originated from Kinshasa during the early 1920s.

"Its initial spread followed the Democratic Republic of Congo's transport links, in particular its railways, that made Kinshasa one of the best connected of all central African cities," Lemey said. "Knowledge of the circumstances that facilitated the expansion of the epidemic can assist the development of effective education and prevention programs."

The researchers stated that the transportation combined with prostitution and poor medical sanitary practices could have caused the virus to spread. The team also believes that the virus went undetected for years because the symptoms, characterized by a poor immune system, were not uncommon in Africa. However, the researchers stated that they do not know if the transmission could have been prevented if people knew about the virus at the time.

The exact origins of the virus are still unknown to scientists. Many believe that different types of the virus migrated from primates to humans in Africa. AIDS was officially recognized in 1981. Since the epidemic began, HIV/AIDS have been linked to causing 40 million deaths.

The study was published in the journal, Science.

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