The HIV virus, isolated by the researchers in 1980, has a rather long story compared to what it was believed beforehand. The doctors identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in the first years of the 80’s when tens of thousands of people were dying after that the HIV would develop in the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome also known as AIDS.

What is the origin of such a scourge?

In 1980 fear and ignorance gave birth to several gambles. In the US the religious right wing party was seeing the virus as a cruel divine punishment for the sin of homosexuality. Creative legends started to spread about intercourse between primates and humans. They were obviously all lies though. In the following 3 decades, scientists and doctors who identified the HIV for the first time tried to bring some clarity about its actual origin and wrote down the first draft of its scientific story.

This project, like the whole scientific knowledge, was kept on being updated every time new data was made available. But the contamination was clear, the HIV was transmitted from a chimpanzee  to the man approximately 100 years ago. The infection occurred in Cameroon and the epidemic begun in Congo, back the Belgian Congo, for a short time exited the grasp of Leopold II.

Below: the virus under the microscope

Below: this spot along the river Congo with the city of Brazzaville on the Northern coast and Kinshasa on the Southern, was the epicenter of the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS

Above: public domain

These conclusions are based on two lines of enquiry which led in 1920 to Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo). The first line of enquiry allowed the researchers of Oxford and the Leuven University in Belgium to trace the genetic mutations of the virus throughout time. Through the study of hundreds of blood samples the researchers followed the mutations all the way back to its source.

The results of the team showed that the main strain of HIV – HIV-1 M, the most widespread in the world, infected the humans in Kinshasa between the 1909 and the 1930. The second line of enquiry identified which species of chimpanzee transmitted the virus to mankind. Thanks to the collection of 7,000 samples of faeces of chimpanzee in all Central and Western Africa, another team discovered another similar virus almost identical to the one which had killed thousands of people, incubated within a chimpanzee called Pan troglodytes troglodytes.

Below: example of chimpanzee of the incubator species

Above: picture by Thomas Lersch via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0

This was the strain, one of the many varieties of what scientists called Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), which guided to the HIV virus, the human form. Yet the chimpanzee incubator of the SIV were only located in Cameroon, country laying in Western Africa, beyond 800 km North from Kinshasa. The spillover of the disease, as in the moment in which the infection moves from one species to another, must have happened in Cameroon.

How did HIV manage to arrive all the way to theDemocratic Republic of the Congo?

Even though the research is still ongoing, the current scientific evidence suggests the most plausible journey of the virus.

The river in Cameroon

Above: picture by Hans Kylberg via Flickr – licence CC BY 2.0

In Cameroon, like in most of Africa, men were hunting chimpanzee for their meat. The theory suggests that one of the hunters around the 20’s wounded himself while cutting the flesh of the animal and at that point the blood of hunter and prey mixed up.

A hunter, the very first infected person with the strain of SIV/HIV, spread the virus along the trade routes of the river all the way to Western Africa. There, the hunter could have headed to a market in a nearby city, having had intercourse with a lover or a prostitute who then spread the infection over and over, for then moving to the Congo river up until arriving to the twin cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa, important trading and transport areas, heart of the colonial power.

David Quammen, scientific writer who studied for many years the history of the HIV virus, described the scene in an interview:

” I can see him landing to Brazzaville, around the 1920, the first HIV-positive man in history of a urban centre, where there is a higher density of human beings, where there are prostitutes, the most social fluidity and sexual interactions, and that seems to be place where the disease became global phenomenon”.

Brazzaville station– 1932

Above: public domain

Kinshasa was place with a lively sex industry and during the first half of the years 20’s the virus entered its population. Many researchers believe that the virus spread even through dirty needles in public health campaigns managed by Belgians who were ruling the Congo. Thanks to an extended rail network, the colons opened the roads to the diffusion of the virus throughout all Africa.  From its start, the epidemic has slowly killed, to this day, approximately 60 millions of people all over the world.

The virus travelled from Kinshasa to Haiti, perhaps taken there from a diplomat coming back from Africa for then in 1960 going from Haiti to the Us, where it laid dormant until the terrible 80’s and 90’s. The African nations suffered extremely from the epidemic: in countries such as Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa, the rates of HIV are still nowadays above 15% of the adult population.

Even though much progress has been accomplished since the 80’s and today it’s way harder to die from HIV, there is still not a vaccine. In the last 3 decades this threat has got a name, but it’s since the 20’s that it slays victims, silently. Despite the progress, the fatal march will carry on in the upcoming years. The hope is that, through the understanding of its origin, the virus can one day be finally destroyed completely.

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