Researchers have recently discovered that the mummified remains of a two-year-old child buried in a crypt of the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy, show signs of hepatitis B. It turns out to be the oldest known case of the disease — at 500 years old.
When the remains of the child from the 16th century were examined a few decades ago, it was thought that the marks found on the body were caused by smallpox. But in 2016, after researchers found another ancient case of smallpox, they decided to sequence the mummy’s DNA. What they found surprised them: signs of hepatitis.
According to Smithsonian.com, “further study of the mummy helped researchers realize that the rash or dots on the child’s face could have been caused by Gianotti-Crosti syndrome, one of the potential symptoms of hepatitis B (HBV).” The research was published last week in PLOS Pathogens.
Further testing has also shown that the virus itself has barely evolved over the course of 500 years. Most viruses evolve extremely quickly, often because of contamination. But in this case, scientists are nearly certain that the mummy has not been contaminated by a new virus. It appears that the hepatitis B that they found is indeed as old as the mummy itself.
Studying the evolution of such diseases has repercussions for us today. Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist, said in a press release that “[t]he 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.”
Hepatitis B is spread through the transmission of bodily fluids from infected people. It affects the liver, and in chronic cases can cause long-term liver damage. Studying the disease in such cases as the mummified child helps scientists learn more about the evolution of the disease. Knowing that can help prevent outbreaks in the future.