The origin of AIDS has been publically debated since the early 1980s. Theories about the source of the disease ran from popular folklore involving a gay Canadian male airline steward who spread the disease casually to careless government experimentation on gays, blacks and cats. All, of course, are totally untrue.
The most recent genetic discovery suggests the disease actually began in southeastern Cameroon as an epidemic when a hunter was infected by the blood of a chimpanzee he was butchering and preparing to eat.
By systematically going through chimp feces, Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Paul Sharp of the University of Edinburgh have identified the simian strain of the HIV-1 virus in the remote southeastern portion of the Cameroon. Based on this, it is now thought the disease began in the heart of Africa during a time of intense colonization and translocation of local people. The pair’s findings were published in the journal Science in 2006.
Even though we didn’t know much about this virus until the 1980s, scientists had collected a sample of it in Kinshasha, formerly Leopoldville, as early as 1959. Leopoldville was made famous in Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness.” In his book, the protagonist transports ivory and other booty down the unnamed Congo River amid danger and treachery. Not even the threat of death at the hands of disease were enough to stop the explorations then considered ‘progress’ as Belgium, under King Leopold II, claimed its share of the African continent. A second wax-encased lymph node biopsy from 1960 identified in 2008 drew further connections to the 1959 discovery.
Due to the many television programs using forensic technology and progress with DNA and the human genome theory, it has become easier to accept that these two genetic findings are indeed related. And according to scientists, they suggest a relationship that dates back to 1908.
Scientists outlined the history of the HIV-1 disease from these findings and speculate that colonization followed enterprise, natural riverways and oceans. They believe that the town of Kinshasha provided fertile ground for the birth of the virus, starting first on the Sangha River in the Belgian Congo, then moving into the vast and dangerous Congo River where sub-types of the virus followed colonization’s expansion. In other words, all theories meet at the Congo River in what is today called Zaire.
It is generally accepted that Africans working as porters or slaves moved over land and river routes and the disease followed. In a nutshell, it doesn’t matter whether you believe:
a hunter, a porter or an ivory collector — gave HIV to a sexual partner. There may have been a small outbreak around the trading station before the virus found its way aboard a steamship headed down the Sangha River. For this fateful journey south, HIV could have ridden in the body of these first victims, or it could have been somebody infected later: a soldier or a laborer. Or it could have been carried by a woman: a concubine, a trader.
Yet in accepting the theory that the origins of HIV-1 were southeastern Cameroon, one must also accept the spread of the virus would not have been possible without the West. In this case, it was because of King Leopold II, with his drive to expand the Belgian empire and create an important trading station at Kinshasha, deep in the heart of Africa. History suggests that in this environment, all the rules were made to be broken. Evidence of this is carried in this virus.
Photo credit: Thinkstockphotos - Hemera
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