The HIV strain that started the US Aids epidemic and fuelled the global spread of the disease reached North America from Africa via Haiti, according to a study released Monday.
"Haiti was HIV's stepping-stone when it left central Africa and started to move around the world," said Michael Worobey, assistant professor of evolutionary biology at the University of
Arizona, Tucson, and senior author of the paper.
A single immigrant
The deadly virus probably arrived on US shores in about 1969, more
than a decade before the full-blown US Aids crisis of the 1980s, and
may have been carried there by a single Haitian immigrant, according to
"Once the virus got to the US, then it just moved explosively around
the world," Worobey said.
The finding confirms longstanding suspicions among some scientists
that the pathogen was imported from Haiti - the poorest nation in the
western hemisphere, with a long history of migration to the United
The timing suggests that it was more likely to have been a Haitian
immigrant or immigrants rather than US sex tourists returning from
Haiti, since it did not become a destination for them until the 1970s,
Date pushed back
The research also pegs the beginning of the US Aids epidemic to the
late 1960s rather than the mid 1970s as was previously assumed, and
suggests that the disaster was brewing for a full 12 years before US
public health authorities realised they had an epidemic on their hands.
It wasn't until 1981 that the first US Aids cases were reported
among homosexual men in Los Angeles by the US Centres for Disease
Control and Prevention.
The strain of the virus that touched off the US epidemic
subsequently spread to Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.
It was not clear previously how the virus got to the United States
from central Africa, where it first surfaced in humans around 1930
after jumping species from chimpanzee to man.
How the discovery was made
To solve the riddle, Worobey and a team of international researchers
conducted genetic analyses of archived blood samples from early Aids
patients who migrated from Haiti to the United States.
They used these analyses to make genetic family trees for the virus,
which they then compared to the genetic sequences of Aids patients from
Their calculations suggested there was a greater than 99 percent
probability that the virus went from Africa to Haiti to the United
The research ties in with other facts that pointed to Haiti as the
missing link in the chain of transmission.
Firstly, many Haitian professionals worked for a time in the
Democratic Republic of Congo after it achieved independence from
Belgium in 1960. It is one of several central African nations where the
disease has been established since the 1930s.
In the early days of the US outbreak, the rate of Aids infections
among Haitians living in the United States was 27 times higher than
that in the broader US population.
Worobey and his colleagues also concluded that the virus jumped from
Haiti to Trinidad and Tobago, causing the predominantly heterosexual
outbreak on those Caribbean islands.
The Aids problems on Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago were therefore
not necessarily started by North American sex tourists visiting the islands in the 1970s or 1980s, as some scientists had speculated. – (Sapa-AFP)