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Study Says AIDS in U.S. Earlier than Thought

On Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences published a new analysis of the African origins of the AIDS virus. The study shows the virus was present in the United States almost a decade earlier than previously thought.

The AIDS virus was first recognized as a disease in 1981, but it arrived in U.S. a decade earlier. Researchers have traced the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and in other developed countries to a single, unknown person.

Richard Knox says researchers used genetic analysis to determine when the AIDS virus arrived in the U.S. The NAS scientists looked at some of the viruses that first showed up in the U.S. in 1982 and 1983. Using the changes that occur in viruses as a kind of clock, the researchers were able to gauge how far back AIDS arrived and how it evolved from the disease that first arrived in Haiti in 1966.

It was about that time, Knox says, that Haitian professionals were traveling back and forth from the Congo in Africa. During one of these trips, one of more of the Haitians contracted the disease. Around 1969, AIDS jumped to the United States by a single carrier.

Knox says it was another dozen years before anyone knew what AIDS was. Part of the problem was AIDS tends to look a lot like other diseases because it attacks the immune system, making the carrier susceptible to other viruses.

Knox talks to Madeleine Brand about the study.

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