Mummy of Medieval Child Reveals Oldest Evidence of Deadly Hepatitis B Infection

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 2
The child died of Hepatitis 450 years ago. Gino Fornaciari, University of Pisa

DNA analysis of what was once thought to be the oldest evidence of a smallpox infection in humans has revealed that a 450-year-old mummy actually died from Hepatitis B. The finding is changing what scientists thought they knew about Hepatitis and when it first infected humans.

Scientists used advanced genome sequencing to analyze DNA from skin and bone samples of a mummified body of a small child buried in the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore in Naples, Italy during the 16th century. Results now published online in Plos Pathogens reveal that the Medieval child died of Hepatitis B, not smallpox as previously believed.

Understanding where and when illnesses first infected humans is critical to our understanding of how the viruses evolve over time. New technology has allowed scientists to sequence ancient viruses with remarkable accuracy and researchers have even sequenced samples of the plague dating from 1,600 years ago, Science Mag reported. This new research shows the oldest evidence of Hepatitis infecting a human, and further DNA analysis revealed that the virus has evolved very little, if at all, over the past several hundred years.

Related: Smallpox Vaccine Saved Billions Of Lives, Yet Scientists Have No Idea What Virus They Used In It

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

The mummy may be the oldest example of hepatitis in humans. Gino Fornaciari, University of Pisa

According to the World Health Organization, Hepatitis B liver infections are caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV). Most people do not experience symptoms until they have been infected for several weeks after initial infection. At this point, they may experience yellowing of the skin and the eyes, dark urine and generally feeling unwell. However, as noted in this new study, children with hepatitis B may also experience a facial rash, known as Gianotti-Crosti syndrome. This rash could have helped add to the misdiagnosis of this centuries-old mummy.

Related: What Is Monkey Pox? New Cases Of Smallpox-Like Disease Afflict Nigeria

Although the mummy may not offer proof that smallpox existed this far back in human history, other evidence has shown that our ancestors suffered from this horrible disease. In fact, a mummy of a child who died in Lithuania in the 17th century was proven through DNA testing to have died from smallpox. This child did not have any visible pox marks on its mummified skin, genetic testing showed the mummy still contained variola, the virus that causes smallpox.