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Although the AIDS virus initially flew under the radar screen and did not enter into the public consciousness to any great extent until the 1970's, a new study suggests that HIV likely began spreading to humans around 1900 in sub-Saharan Africa near what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As Malcolm Ritter stated in an article published in today's Washington Post, "Study traces AIDS virus origin to 100 years ago", http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/01/AR2008100101379.html?nav=hcmoduletmv
a new study by Professor Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona which is to be published Thursday in the journal Nature ties the origin of HIV to the same time period when cities developed in Africa and suggests that urban development may have been responsible for the original establishment of HIV and its early spread. http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/news/newsreleases/2008/HIV_evolution.htm
Scientists believe that HIV probably came from a virus present in chimpanzees that spread to human beings, possibly as a result of people butchering chimps. Although many people likely were infected in that way, so few other people ended up getting the virus that originally it did not get a substantial foothold in the larger population. "But the growth of African cities may have changed that by putting lots of people close together and promoting prostitution, Worobey suggested. ‘Cities are kind of ideal for a virus like HIV,' providing more chances for infected people to pass the virus to others, he said." Worobey speculates that maybe a person who had been infected with the AIDS virus in a rural area traveled to what is now Kinshasa, Congo, and the virus spread much more quickly in an urban environment.
If there is one silver lining in this dark cloud, it is that the increased knowledge we are now gaining as to the origins of the AIDS epidemic may help us welcome the day when the HIV virus eventually becomes extinct. As Professor Worobey states, "I think the picture that has emerged here, where changes the human population experienced may have opened the door to the spread of HIV, is a good reminder that we can make changes now that could help reverse the epidemic. If HIV has one weak spot, it is that it is a relatively poorly transmitted virus. From better testing and prevention, to wider use of the antiretroviral drug therapy, there are a number of ways to reduce transmission and force this virus back into extinction."
With the horrible costs that this epidemic has inflicted on the lives of those afflicted with AIDS as well as their loved ones, lets hope that such day comes sooner rather than later.