October 2, 2008
Study Traces Origin of AIDS Virus to 100 Years Ago
By MALCOLM RITTER
By Malcolm Ritter
The Associated Press
The AIDS virus has been circulating among people for about 100 years, decades longer than scientists had thought, a new study suggests. Genetic analysis pushes the estimated origin of HIV back to between 1884 and 1924, with a more focused estimate at 1908.
Previously, scientists had estimated the origin at around 1930. AIDS wasn't recognized formally until 1981 when it got the attention of public health officials in the United States.
The new result is "not a monumental shift, but it means the virus was circulating under our radar even longer than we knew," said Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, an author of the new work. The results appear in today's issue of the journal Nature. Researchers note that the newly calculated dates fall during the rise of cities in Africa, and they suggest urban development might have promoted HIV's initial establishment and early spread.
Scientists say HIV descended from a chimpanzee virus that jumped to humans in Africa, probably when people butchered chimps. Many individuals were probably infected that way, but so few other people caught the virus that it failed to get a lasting foothold, researchers say.
But the growth of African cities might 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.
Perhaps a person infected with the AIDS virus in a rural area went to what is now Kinshasa, Congo, "and now you've got the spark arriving in the tinderbox," he said.
Key to the new work was the discovery of an HIV sample that had been taken from a woman in Kinshasa, Congo, in 1960. It was only the second such sample to be found from before 1976; the other was from 1959, also from Kinshasa.
Originally published by BY MALCOLM RITTER.
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