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To date, Africa remains the continent where herpes simplex viruses type 1 and 2 are most prevalent. This gave rise to the hypothesis that the viral strains that infect us today left Africa in very ancient times. It was thought this coincided during the major "Out of Africa" migratory event that, around 60,000 years ago, led humans to populate all other continents.
"Recently, thanks to the study of viruses found in archaeological remains, the scientific community has a better knowledge of the speed at which viral species evolve," said study co-author Manuela Sironi. "Thus, we can use rather precise methods that allow the dating of viral origin and dispersal. By applying these methods, we estimated that the circulating strains of herpes simplex virus type 1 migrated from Africa about 5000 years ago.
The exit from Africa of herpes simplex virus type 2 was even more recent and probably occurred in the eighteenth century."
The type 2 herpes result draws a link between epidemiological data and a major historical event --- the height of the transatlantic slave trade. In this century, millions of people were deported from Africa to the Americas.
Most likely, this heinous forced human migration also led to the initial spread of herpes simplex virus type 2 in the Americas. In fact, the prevalence of the virus is higher in this continent than elsewhere and it is second only to Africa.
And herpes simplex virus type 2 is probably not the only pathogen to have been introduced to the American continent as a result of the slave trade.
Previous studies have shown that the same happened for yellow fever virus and for a parasitic worm (Schsitosoma mansoni).
For ecological reasons, these pathogens remained confined to tropical or subtropical areas. Herpes simplex virus type 2, instead, found no barriers to today's planetary spread. Source:
Molecular Biology and Evolution (Oxford University Press) Journal reference:
Forni, D. et al . (2020) Recent out-of-Africa migration of human herpes simplex viruses. Molecular Biology and Evolution . doi.
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