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STUDY: HIV and AIDS Began in 1920s Africa, Dispels Crazy Myths

STUDY: HIV and AIDS Began in 1920s Africa, Dispels Crazy Myths


A landmark new study finds that HIV actually emerged in Congo in the 1920s. Check out three debunked HIV-origin theories of the past.

Researchers at Oxford University and Belgium's University of Leuven say they have unraveled the mystery of precisely when, where, and to some extent, how the HIV virus emerged as the definitive pandemic of the last half of the 20th century, according to a report by Reuters.

Professor Oliver Pybus of Oxford's Zoology Department co-led the study, which took a comprehensive look at existing data from mulitple studies. The new analysis arrives at 1920s central Africa in what was then the Belgian Congo and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In fact, Pybus told Reuters that use of "the latest phylogeographic techniques" means researchers have "a high degree of certainty" that HIV and AIDS first emerged in the DRC capital of Kinsasha.

It has long been understood by scientists that the two major forms of HIV (HIV-1 and HIV-2) made interspecies jumps from primates at least five times to create the eight major strains of the virus that plague humanity today. According the UNAIDS, more than 75 million people have been infected with HIV, while 1.5 million died of AIDS last year alone.

But it was a major colonial-era expansion of railways executed by the Belgians in the 1920s in central Africa along with simultaneous changes in the behaviors of sex workers that converted occurrences of HIV from isolated incidents to an epidemic and ultimately to a global pandemic, according to researchers involved in the international study.   

Nuno Faria, another Oxford University researcher, told Reuters that colonial archives show that by the end of 1940s, more than 1 million people traveled each year through Kinshasa on the railways.

The arrival in the 1940s and '50s of public health efforts further increased the potential for the spread of HIV outward from central Africa. Those efforts introduced greater numbers of hypodermic needles, syringes, and other bloodstream-penetrating medical tools and practices into the region, according to the study's findings, which were published late last week in Science.

According to researchers, the departure of colonial administration from Congolese society created conditions that were ripe for the spread of HIV.

"We think it is likely that the social changes around the independence in 1960 saw the virus break out from small groups of infected people to infect the wider population and eventually the world," said Faria.

PBS's Frontline series aired a landmark episode titled "The Age of AIDS" in 2006 that explored the origins of HIV and AIDS. A detailed evolutionary tree affiliated with the 2006 production meticulously outlines the jumps of various strings of simian immunodeficiency virus to the human immunodeficiency viruses researchers have discovered through the years.

The LGBT community is better acquainted than the general population with the here-and-now details of the AIDS pandemic as well as the historical impact that the HIV virus has had on society during the past 40  years. Yet the gay community has had no more insight than anyone else into the questions of exactly how, where and when HIV began its relentless march.

Over the years, wacky theories about where HIV came from have been discredited one by one. Here are three of the most absurd theories about the origins of HIV and AIDS:

AIDS is God's Punishment for Tolerance of Homosexuality

HIV/AIDS Was Accidentally Unleashed by Clumsy Lab Workers

The CIA Did It

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Thom Senzee