Kinshasa, pictured in 1955
Kinshasa, pictured in 1955

This week an international team of researchers concluded it was “highly likely” that the Aids pandemic originated in around 1920 in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo.

The researchers confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that the HIV-1 group M pandemic first emerged in the city, which at the time was the Belgian colonial capital of the Congo.

In the 1920s it was the biggest urban centre in central Africa and was a focus for trade, including a market in wild “bush meat”.

According to Professor Oliver Pybus, an Oxford University academic and a senior author of the study, there was “only a small window during the Belgian colonial era for this strain of HIV to emerge and spread into a pandemic".

The study found:

• The human version of the virus evolved from a simian virus infecting chimps which were hunted for food by people who had probably carried HIV with them into Leopoldville.

• From Leopoldville, the virus began spreading via the colonial railway network to other parts of central Africa.

• An increase in commercial sex workers and the re-use of dirty syringes also helped the transmission of the virus.

• Social changes after the Congo gained independence in 1960 helped the virus “break out” into the wider population.

• During this time it spread to Haitian immigrant workers who carried the virus back home, from where it would be transmitted to visitors from the US.

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