After 30 years of researching, scientists are almost certain they have found the source and time the HIV virus emerged. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the area researchers zeroed in on.

The study shows that it wasn’t just the explosion of the population in central Africa that led to the virus turning into a global pandemic, rather it was what scientists still fear out of viruses today. Mobility. Kinshasa was the capital of the region, and the growth of railways had over a million people travelling through the area by the end of the 1940s.

The railways made Kinshasa the most connected city in Africa. This allowed infected people to travel throughout the large country, spreading the virus. Infections were spread by male workers who then infected the Congolese sex workers.

By the time the DRC gained independence in 1960, societal attitudes towards sex began changing. What was once confined to clusters then exploded into the mainstream. Study author Dr. Nuno Faria of Oxford University released a statement on the group’s findings.

“We think it is likely that the social changes around the independence in 1960 saw the virus ‘breakout’ from small groups of infected people to infect the wider population and eventually the world.”

In a remarkable turn of events, the railways that allowed the spread throughout the DRC were becoming less used by the 1960s. This gave the virus a small window, which it exploited. Professor Oliver Pybus, a co-author, commented on this turn of events. “But by that time, the seeds of the pandemic were already sown across Africa and beyond.”

The study is published in this week’s Science, and shows that HIV jumped from primates to humans at least thirteen times at the turn of the century. Handling infected bush meat was to blame. These clusters mostly died out, but one left the jungle and entered into the city. From there it was a perfect storm of circumstances.

The United Nations AIDS agency says that over 35 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV. Through educational campaigns, the number of AIDS-related deaths peaked in 2005 with 2.3 million. The global average for AIDS-related deaths now stands at 1.6 million annually.

Read the complete study at Science.

IMG Credit: Irene2005 / Wikipedia

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