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Emerging History Of HIV Pandemic Sheds Light On How Infectious Diseases Spread

FILE - This April 12, 2011 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows an H9 T cell, blue, infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), yellow.

A Seattle scientist is helping piece together the history of the HIV pandemic, and the new findings on when and where the pandemic began are helping explain how infectious diseases go global.

The first thing to know is that HIV didn’t jump from apes and monkeys to people just once. Trevor Bedford, an infectious diseases scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said it likely did so at least 13 times.

“Almost none of these took off, whereas there is this one particular virus that managed to spread throughout the world and infect millions of people,” Bedford said.

By analyzing the family tree of that one virus, Bedford and his colleagues were able to reconstruct the pandemic’s roots down to a very specific time and place.

“The common ancestor of all of the massive HIV pandemic dates to around 1920 in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Bedford said.

From there, HIV simmered in the Congo for decades. Then factors like new railroads and a proliferation of sex work caused the epidemic to boil over.

Bedford said the current Ebola epidemic bears some similarities. Both viruses probably crossed over multiple times from animals before finding the right conditions to spread widely.

The new research appears in the journal Science.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.