A new study shows that the prevalence of modern herpes (herpes simplex) dates back to the Bronze Age and is associated with the advent of kissing.
Herpes is a worrying problem that affects an estimated 3.7 billion people worldwide. The herpes virus is not normally dangerous to adults, but can be dangerous to children, where it is fatal to people with weakened immune systems. It can quickly spread to children’s brains if a person infected with the virus kisses it in what is called the “kiss of death”, causing multiple organ failure and eventually death.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge have deciphered the ancient genome of herpes, the virus that commonly causes lip ulcers, and analysis of ancient DNA has shown that the HSV-1 strain of the herpes virus appeared during periods of mass movement of people from Eurasia to Europe about 5,000 years ago. many years ago.
Scholars have stated that this migration resulted in an increase in population density, leading to higher transmission rates and the importation of new cultural practices from the East, including kissing.
The oldest known record of kissing comes from a Bronze Age manuscript from South Asia. The spread of the habit coincided with the spread of HSV-1, which can be spread by mouth, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.
It appears that scientists at the University of Cambridge were the first to discover and sequence the ancient genome of the virus, as previous herpes genetic data date back to 1925, but the team was looking for four samples of human remains that are over 1,000 years old. .
By comparing ancient samples with those from the 20th century, they were able to develop evolutionary timescale estimates.
Study co-author Dr Christiane Shipp, a research fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge and head of the ancient DNA laboratory at the University of Tartu, said: “Every species of primate has some form of herpes, so we assume it has been with us ever since.” a particular species has left Africa. However, something happened about 5,000 years ago that allowed one strain of herpes to outcompete others, which may have increased the rate of transmission, which could be related to kissing.”
The samples used in the study were taken by isolating viral DNA from the roots of the teeth of four people.
Herpes is often exacerbated by oral infections, and at least two of the sample used in the study had periodontal disease, and three of the others smoked tobacco.
The oldest specimen came from an adult male excavated in the Russian Ural Mountains and dates from the late Iron Age, about 1500 years ago.
Other specimens included a woman exhumed from an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Cambridge, a young adult male from the late 14th century also from Cambridge, and another man, possibly 17th century from the Netherlands.
Dr Charlotte Holdcroft, co-author of the study, added: “The world is seeing COVID-19 mutate rapidly over weeks and months. A virus like herpes develops on a much larger time scale. the host is for life and is transmitted only through oral contact, so mutations occur slowly, over centuries and millennia. We need to do deep research to understand how these DNA viruses have evolved.”
The World Health Organization reports that two-thirds of the world’s population under the age of 50 is infected with HSV-1.
The National Health Service (NHS) warns that herpes is contagious from the first moment you feel the prick. And she advises against kissing children when they have herpes, as this can lead to neonatal herpes, which is very dangerous for newborns.
Herpes is often a nuisance or embarrassment to those who suffer from it, but along with other health complications such as sepsis or even Covid-19, the virus can be deadly.