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Roads linked to HIV spread in Africa

15th January 2013

A study in sub-Saharan Africa has confirmed that HIV-1, the strain of virus behind the pandemic in the continent, spreads in a pattern that closely mimics major road networks.

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Hundreds of thousands of people take to the roads every day across the continent, and that travel has gone a long way towards distributing and spreading HIV-1.

Researchers from the US and UK mapped out the patterns of HIV-1 distribution across sub-Saharan Africa from 1998-2008.

They used molecular epidemiology data to produce a mapped out picture of distribution of the virus at a finer level of detail than ever before, according to the study authors.

The latest research comes after local studies had already showed transport infrastructure and human mobility had a close relationship to the spread of HIV in Africa.

Travel, they conclude, is a major driving force behind the epidemic.

According to study lead author Andrew Tatem of the University of Florida, transport infrastructure and other geographic features are arteries along which people and goods flow.

But they are also a channel for disease, and have been for many years. He said the phenomenon was in no way unique to HIV-1 or to the region.

Tatem said, the better a country's infrastructural development, the more transport networks are likely to help the spread of disease.

People take pathogens with them when they travel, and the probability the pathogens will be exchanged with other humans gets higher, the more frequently they do this.

The study authors called for new health facilities and extra disease monitoring measures to be put in place whenever new roads are planned.

While road-building should not be halted, there was a need for facilities allowing for prompt diagnosis and treatment alongside it.

According to Samoel Khamadi of the Kenya Medical Research Institute's Centre for Virus Research, major road networks are "HIV hotspots" because of another factor: the sex trade.

Khamadi called the study a wake-up call to governments that sufficient preventative measures should be put in place.

Awareness campaigns for safer sex and programmes give sex workers other opportunities to earn a living were possible avenues for policy makers, he said.

HIV-1 originated in west-central Africa after it was transmitted to humans from chimpanzees around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are many sub-types of the virus, which recombine with each other constantly, making vaccination very difficult.

Human mobility has long been established as a key driver of the spread of disease, by air, sea and land transport networks.

Availability of travel routes, speed of travel and the sheer volume of passengers now on the move mean that pathogens can also travel further, faster and in larger numbers than ever before.

The same phenomenon has been observed with the spread of antibiotic resistance, following a study of resistance patterns along a two-lane highway in Ecuador that did not exist before 1996.


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