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Ancient Romans spread tuberculosis at the height of their success

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that ancient Romans are responsible for the spread of tuberculosis (TB), which kills approximately 1. 7 million people every year worldwide.

Although tuberculosis first emerged in Africa 5,000 years ago, the experts linked the rapid spread of the disease to activities that took place during the first century AD at the height of the Roman Empire.

TB is easily spread from person to person when it becomes airborne from something as simple as a sneeze or a cough, and the condition can have a fatal effect on the lungs.

The investigation was focused on genomic data from more than 550 samples of tuberculosis bacteria, which were obtained from across modern-day Africa and Eurasia. A comparison of the DNA sequences enabled the team to construct a timeline of how the disease spread.

Three of the seven lineages that now exist were found to be native to Africa and Eurasia, while the other four had spread out into other regions.

The movement of the four strains of TB out of Africa was discovered to coincide with the peak of the Roman Empire, when activities such as group bathing were common.

Study author and geneticist Caitlin Pepperell told the New Scientist:

“The timing is consistent with the Romans causing an incredible amount of movement and exploration around the Mediterranean.”

“There was contact between human populations that had not had contact before.”

Across Asian and African countries, about 80 percent of people are affected by TB, while about 5 to 10 percent of the American population has tested positive for the disease.

Understanding how tuberculosis spread in the past will help experts to predict the ways that this deadly disease may spread in the future.

The research can be accessed on the site bioRxiv.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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