The Slatest

Origin of AIDS Pandemic Traced to the Democratic Republic of Congo

An anti-AIDS campaign poster in Sierra Leone.

Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images

Three decades after the world witnessed HIV begin to take its devastating human toll, scientists have isolated where the pandemic started in Kinshasa, in what was then Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The revelation is outlined in the journal Science, which dated the origin of the pandemic as early as the 1920s.

While the virus is thought to have crossed into the human population years earlier, the Guardian notes, it remained largely localized until it reached Kinshasa, where it catapulted throughout the region and then world. A confluence of social factors led to what the authors call a “perfect storm” leading to the virus’ explosion in the D.R.C. “[The] report says a roaring sex trade, rapid population growth and unsterilised needles used in health clinics probably spread the virus,” the BBC reports. “Meanwhile Belgium-backed railways had one million people flowing through the city each year, taking the virus to neighbouring regions.”

“From the 1920s until 1960, the pandemic HIV strain – there were others that fizzled out – spread from Kinshasa, crossed borders to other nations, and ultimately landed on distant continents. It has infected nearly 75 million people worldwide to date,” according to the Guardian.