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Behind the headlines

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‘Roman Empire raised threat of HIV’

What did the media report?

The media reported that the conquering legions of ancient Rome may have helped to spread HIV and Aids throughout modern Europe.

What did the research show?

Researchers from the University of Provence in Marseille looked at the incidence of a gene variant, called CCR5-Delta32, which impairs the ability of HIV to enter white blood cells. People with this variant have some resistance to the infection and also take longer to develop Aids.

The researchers found that the changing frequency of the variant among European populations also reflects the changing boundary of the Roman Empire from 500 BC to 500 AD. They studied nearly 19,000 DNA samples and found that the number of people with the gene variant dwindled in regions conquered by the Romans.

Only between 0–6% of people carry the variant within the empire boundary, compared with 8–11.8% in border areas and 11.8–15% outside former Roman territory.

The authors believe that, rather than spreading a different gene variant into the population, the Romans may have introduced a fatal disease to which carriers of the CCR5-Delta32 variant were unusually susceptible.

The research was published online in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.

What did the researchers say?

‘The Romans introduced cats and donkeys into Europe which may have carried pathogens that spread to humans,’ the authors said.

‘What’s more, the Romans inadvertently brought with them disease-carrying mosquitoes,’ they added.

What does this mean for nursing practice?

Eleanor Briggs, senior policy officer at the National AIDS Trust, said: ‘This research is interesting – at the very least it reminds us there is still so much we don’t know about this complex virus. Any studies that shed more light on HIV are important, especially as scientists are still working towards a vaccine.

‘However today, the spread of HIV in the UK has more to do with a lack of basic awareness about HIV among the general public and the stigma still associated with it, than any relationship with the Romans,’ she added.

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