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Mummified child reveals first known death from hepatitis

DNA analysis of the mummified body of a child who died 450 years ago is revealing an unexpected cause of death. The child was believed to have been the first known human fatality from smallpox, but experts have now discovered that the child actually died from hepatitis.

Previous assessments of the Medieval remains led experts to believe that the child had passed after suffering from the Variola virus, or smallpox. But now, a research team led by McMaster University has positively identified an ancient strain of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) as the cause of death.

The experts collected small tissue samples of skin and bone and used advanced sequencing techniques to assemble a genome. The study revealed that this individual was the first known human to die from Hepatitis B.

The analysis also showed the researchers that this illness has barely changes in hundreds of years. This is an unexpected finding considering the fact that most viruses evolve very rapidly.

Hendrik Poinar is an evolutionary geneticist with the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and a principal investigator with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

“These data emphasize the importance of molecular approaches to help identify the presence of key pathogens in the past, enabling us to better constrain the time they may have infected humans,” said Poinar.

According to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC), approximately 240 million people suffer from chronic Hepatitis B worldwide, and the disease is responsible for 786,000 deaths each year.

“The more we understand about the behavior of past pandemics and outbreaks, the greater our understanding of how modern pathogens might work and spread, and this information will ultimately help in their control,” said Poinar.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Image Credit: Gino Fornaciari, University of Pisa

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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