“Data from colonial archives tells us that by the end of the 1940s over one million people were travelling through Kinshasa on the railways each year. Our genetic data tells us that HIV very quickly spread across the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe,” Dr Faria said.
Further social changes brought about as a result of independence in 1960 helped the virus to “break out” from small groups of infected people into the wider population, including immigrant workers from Haiti who then carried their infection back home from where it would eventually be transmitted to visitors from the US.
“Our research suggests that following the original animal-to-human transmission of the virus, probably through the hunting or handling of bush meat, there was only a small window during the Belgian colonial era for this particular strain of HIV to emerge and spread into a pandemic,” Professor Pybus said.
“By the 1960s, transport systems such as the railways that enabled the virus to spread vast distances were less active, but by that time the seeds of the pandemic were already sown across Africa and beyond,” he said.
Previous studies have suggested that the initial transmission of HIV from chimps to humans probably occurred in the south-east part of Cameroon not far from the border with the Belgian Congo, Dr Faria said.
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