Members of the University of Winnipeg’s (U of W) Caribbean Research Institute have been working with a team of researchers from across the globe to uncover the historical evolution of the hepatitis B virus (HBV).
The research has been conducted by examining the virus’ evolution between 10,500 and 440 years ago from 137 human remains of ancient Eurasians and Indigenous Americans.
“The results provided new insights into the diversity and phylogeographic history of HBV, supporting that all known HBV strains evolved from a lineage that diversified later than previously thought,” Dr. Yadira Chinique de Armas, associate professor in the U of W’s anthropology department, says.
The importance of studying the evolution of a virus goes far beyond strictly the understanding of the particular virus itself, as many patterns and histories of the transmission and mutation of viruses are applicable to other contexts and studies.
Researchers working on this study have been “tracing (the) history of different diseases that can help understand their origin, dispersal and evolution,” Dr. Mirjana Roksandic, a U of W anthropology professor, says. “In and of itself, this research is not immediately applicable to solving (a) global health crisis but it helps us understand the evolution of disease.”
Understanding the origins of HBV allows researchers to track the patterns of mutation and growth, as well as the way that centuries of global colonization facilitated the spread of the virus.
“Results suggest that the early settlers of the Americas spread the disease as they migrated into different territories,” Chinique de Armas says.
“This type of research is very important for our project in Cuba. This study confirmed that the virus was present in archaeological populations from the Canímar River in Matanzas since at least 1,600 years ago.”
As research about HBV continues, the Caribbean Research Institute is looking forward to further collaboration with the Max Plank Institute to screen members of the Cuban Indigenous population.
Research of this nature provides “a new line of evidence to understand aspects related to health, disease and interactions among Cuban Indigenous groups,” says Chinique de Armas.
Although HBV isn’t a significant cause of death in Canada, it is one of the most common serious liver infections in the world, with one in three people infected globally.
“In Canada, (HBV) can be considered rare, however, there are some regions in the world, such as the Western Pacific or Africa in which many millions of people are chronically infected,” Chinique de Armas says.
“It is my understanding that, in 2016, the World Health Assembly put in place the first global health strategies on viral hepatitis, and they are supporting countries in eliminating hepatitis as part of (the) WHO agenda.”
Most children in Canada receive the HBV vaccine before the age of 12, which is 98 to 100 per cent effective against the virus. It also helps prevent the possibility of complications such as chronic disease or liver cancer.
Published in Volume 76, Number 08 of The Uniter (November 4, 2021)