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Mummies had deadly disease

9th October 2006

09102006_Isis400.jpgLeishmaniasis--a disease caused by microscopic parasites, like malaria, and transmitted by sand flies--results in painful skin sores and in its most vicious form causes at least 500,000 deaths worldwide every year.

Endemic to northeastern Africa, it also afflicts South and Central America as well as the Middle East; as many as 650 U.S. soldiers experienced it during the first year of the invasion of Iraq. The lethal form--visceral leishmaniasis, also known as kala azar, or black fever in the Hindi language of India, where the disease was first discovered by British doctors--is particularly prevalent in Sudan, and some authorities have claimed it originated there.

Albert Zink of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and his colleagues tested the DNA of bone samples from 91 ancient Egyptian mummies and 70 from old Nubia--modern Sudan--to determine if they had suffered from leishmaniasis. In nine of the 70 Nubian mummies--taken from graves stretching as far back as A.D. 550--mitochondrial DNA of the parasite was discovered, proving the disease was endemic at least that far back.

And it may have even more ancient roots than that; four of the Egyptian mummies carried the parasite's DNA, each dating from the Middle Kingdom period of 2050 to 1650 B.C. when trade ties with Nubia were strongest. Egyptian mummies from prior and later periods showed no sign of the disease. Details of the new research first emerged in the October issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

In addition to highlighting the old cultural ties between Egypt and Nubia, it also adds further weight to the theory that visceral leishmaniasis first developed in the region now known as Sudan. And the technique has been applied to other diseases, such as tuberculosis and malaria, to trace their development.

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