Researchers at the Robert Koch Institute in Germany examined the lungs of a patient who died of measles in 1912 and concluded that the virus was not 1,000 years old, as previously assumed but almost 2500.
Measles, a highly contagious disease, was responsible for 140,000 deaths worldwide in 2018, according to new estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although there is still no cure, measles is far from being a new disease: it is said to be even older than Jesus Christ! A new study by virologists at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin underlines this fact. In the journal Science, they explain that they have discovered that the virus does not originate from the late 9th century as previously assumed but from around 528 BC.
The emergence of cities Played a big role in the spread of measles
How could there be such a huge discrepancy, of more than 1,000 years? They first questioned the first description of measles, which goes back to a 10th-century Persian text: “Old medical texts are not a very accurate source of information. Clinical descriptions are very incomplete and it is difficult to distinguish whether an author is talking about measles, smallpox, or any other disease,” said Sébastien Calvignac-Spencer, a virologist at the Robert Koch Institute, who is quoted in Le Figaro.
Derived from rinderpest (also known as cattle plague or steppe murrain), with which it shares many similarities, measles is believed to have indeed occurred more than 2,500 years ago, when large cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were built, particularly in China, India, North Africa, and Europe. This has allowed the virus to circulate for hundreds of years without ever reaching an impasse in which it runs out of new subjects to infect.
It was the lung collection of the Berlin Museum of Medical History that led the virologists on this path. They analyzed the lungs of a two-year-old girl who died of measles in 1912. To date, this is the oldest measles virus genome ever analyzed. The researchers were able to reconstruct the phylogenetic tree of the virus by comparing it with the genomes of other viruses and modern animal viruses. “Measles probably spread from animals to humans several times,” says Sebastian Duchêne, co-author of the paper. Until the 1990s, it could eventually only infect humans and cause major epidemics.