A new report challenges many of the popular theories surrounding how human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) came to become a worldwide pandemic, infecting more than 33 million people as of 2008. According to researchers from the Universite de Sherbrooke in Quebec, Can., early 20th century French colonial doctors using bad needles may be to blame for its massive spread.
Dr. Jacques Pepin and his team from the university traveled to central Africa to investigate the situation further, surveying local villagers who had been exposed to a sleeping sickness epidemic that occurred there between 1936 and 1950. Using hepatitis C infection as a model, they found that those who had been treated for sleeping disease before 1951 were three times as likely to be infected as those who were not treated, indicating that tainted needles used in treating the disease may have been the culprit in HIV’s spread.
“What happened is that for a long time, the needles and syringes used to administer the intravenous drugs were not single-use,” explained Pein to Reuters Health. “There were a lot of patients and not a lot of needles, so the sterilization of needles was not very efficient.”
One of the most widely held mainstream theories about how HIV was first transmitted to humans was that it came from chimpanzees. Humans allegedly contracted the disease from the animals, and it morphed from simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) to HIV. But how it spread across the world so rapidly, and why it continues to ravage populations, has been unclear to many scientists.
But some now say that the new research lends some credence to the notion that infected needles are at least partially to blame. After all, the number of remaining villagers age 65 or older who had been treated for sleeping sickness is six times lower than it should be, which supports the hypothesis that many of them have already died from AIDS.