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Until now, it was believed that a child mummy in Italy showed the oldest medieval evidence of smallpox, but a new DNA study has shown that the real disease he suffered was Hepatitis B.
The little boy was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy, during the 16th century according to the study published in the magazine PLOS Pathogens last Thursday.
A apparent facial rash led experts to initially believe that the child suffered from smallpox, also known as variola virus. However, researchers at McMaster University examined it a second time by extracting tissue and bone samples to identify various DNA fragments.
The genomic analysis showed that the virus the child suffered was Hepatitis B, which attacks the liver and can also cause rashes, as has been the case.
"The discovery confirms that Hepatitis B has been around for centuries and has changed little in the last 450 years," he explained. Hendrik Poinar, evolutionary geneticist at the McMaster Center for Ancient DNA.
"These data emphasize the importance of molecular approaches to help identify the presence of key pathogens in the past, allowing us to better restrict how long they may have infected humans," he explained.
"The more we understand about the behavior of past pandemics and outbreaks, the greater our understanding of how modern pathogens could function and spread, and this information will ultimately help control them," he concluded.
Today, Hepatitis B affects about 350 million people worldwide and kills approximately one million people each year.
This discovery joins the one we published today, in which it has been shown that Salmonella enterica was the cause of the “cocoliztli” epidemic that affected Mexico between 1545 and 1550.
Did you know the oldest sample of Hepatitis B has been found in a Korean mummy?
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