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A "perfect storm" of conditions involving rapid growth, the sex trade and the railway system led to the current HIV epidemic, which has been traced back to 1920s Kinshasa, Congo.

An estimated 36.1 million people from all over the world are living with HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Nearly 22 million people have succumbed to AIDS since the beginning of the pandemic. We've all heard speculations — some wildly ridiculous, others scientific — on the origins of the virus.

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We know it started somewhere in Africa, where many HIV-positive people still end up dying from AIDS-related causes, and we're also aware that HIV is a mutated chimpanzee virus that probably made the jump to humans due to the handling of bush meat. Where exactly did the HIV pandemic originate though?

How The 'Perfect Storm' Of Conditions Cooked Up The HIV Epidemic

Scientists from the University of Oxford in the UK and the University of Leuven in Belgium got together to examine where exactly the strain of HIV that has infected millions of people —  HIV-1 subgroup M — came from. By looking at mutations on the genetic code of the virus and tracing their way back through the years that way, the team determined that the HIV pandemic started in Kinshasa, Congo, in the 1920s. 

Professor Oliver Pybus from the University of Oxford told the BBC: "You can see the footprints of history in today's genomes, it has left a record, a mutation mark in the HIV genome that can't be eradicated."

Why Kinshasa? While the virus first appeared on the global radar in 1980, its history in Africa goes back much further than that. Prior to this new research, it was not clear exactly where the pandemic started. Back in the 1920s, Kinshasa was the capital of the Belgian colony of Congo, and it was a thriving, growing metropolis that drew many male laborers looking for work. With men representing the vast majority of the population at some point, Kinshasa was home to a booming sex trade. Colonial medical records show that sexually transmitted diseases were definitely going around. 

Belgian Congo also had a wildly popular railway system that enabled large numbers of people to move around much more freely than ever before. By the 1940s, a million people were using Kinshasa's railways. Soon, the virus spread and the surrounding areas were hit badly. 

The conditions scientists refer to as a "perfect storm" didn't last beyond a few decades, but by the time the Kinshasa's "Golden age of growth" had come to an end, the virus had already spread far and wide. 

Milan Baby Not Cured Of HIV After All

While the research teams from the University of Oxford and the University of Leuven provided a new insight into the exact origin of the HIV epidemic, its end is unfortunately not in sight yet. In July, reports that the virus had returned to the so-called "Mississippi baby" thought to have been cured after very early anti-retroviral treatment disappointed many.

Now, another baby thought to have been cured of HIV following anti-retroviral treatment at four days old once again has a detectable viral load in his blood.

When the child, a boy referred to as the "Milan baby", had no detectable HIV or HIV antbodies, his medical team and family came to the decision to cease antiretroviral treatment. Two weeks later, the virus was back. The child's medical team reported: "The presence of immune activation, impairments in the memory-naive differentiation pathway, and HIV-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes suggested ongoing viral replication. These findings differentiate the case from the Mississippi child and the Berlin patient, in whom HIV-specific T lymphocyte-mediated immune responses and immune activation were not detected or were absent."

The search for a cure for HIV continues, however, and several exciting new treatments are currently being developed. 

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