New York, Jun 18: The first recorded Ebola outbreak may have occurred in ancient Greece more than 2,400 years ago, a new study suggests. Most researchers believe that the first outbreak of Ebola happened in 1976, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire).
The current outbreak of the virus which began in early 2014 in West Africa has infected more than 27,000 people and killed nearly 11,200.
However, the Ebola virus may be quite old; previous research discovered remnants of identical Ebola DNA in several different species of rodents, including the mouse and the Norway rat.
This led scientists to speculate that Ebola infected the ancestors of these species at least 20 million years ago.
The ancient nature of the disease "raises the question of whether Ebola may have spilled over from its animal reservoir to humans well before scientists first identified it in 1976," study author Powel Kazanjian, a professor of history and infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, told Live Science.
Kazanjian suggests that an Ebola virus may have been the culprit in the infamous Plague of Athens, a five-year epidemic that began in 430 BC, whose cause has long been a matter of conjecture among physicians and historians.
The Athenian illness began with an abrupt onset of fever, headache, fatigue, and pain in the stomach and extremities, accompanied by furious vomiting.
Those who survived after seven days of illness also experienced severe diarrhea.
The Athenian disease began south of Egypt in a region called "Aethiopia," a term that ancient Greeks used to refer to regions in sub-Saharan Africa, where modern Ebola outbreaks have occurred, Kazanjian said.
In the ancient world, sub-Saharan Africans migrated to Greece to work as farmers or servants, thereby providing a potential human vector for Ebola.
Kazanjian argued that the symptoms, mortality rate and origin in sub-Saharan Africa that characterise the Plague of Athens are consistent with what is known about Ebola.
He added that physicians were among the first victims of the Athenian disease, just as modern health care workers have proven especially vulnerable to Ebola, with nearly 500 dying from the virus in the current outbreak as of January.
"Diseases like Ebola, which we sometimes lump into the category of a new or emerging disease, may actually be much older than we realise," Kazanjian said. The study was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.