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An international research team has found evidence indicating that leprosy could spread from Great Britain to Scandinavia. The team, led by the University of Leiden and including researchers from English historical universities such as Southampton, Birmingham, Surrey or Swansea, has examined 1,500-year-old skeletons found in Essex, England, in 1950.
The bones of a man probably in his 20s show symptoms of leprosy, such as narrowing of the finger bones and damage to the joints. Modern scientific techniques applied by researchers have confirmed that the man suffered from this disease and that it probably came from Scandinavia.
Archaeologist Sonia Zakrzewsk from the University of Southhampton explains that the investigated DNA is sufficient to establish a clear diagnosis: «Not in all cases, leprosy can be identified through disorders registered in the skeleton. Sometimes it does not leave a mark on the bones, and other times it affects the bones in a similar way to other diseases. In these cases, the only way is to use fingerprint DNA or other characteristic chemical markers of the leprosy bacillus.«.
Researchers have searched the skeleton Bacterial DNA to confirm that the man had leprosy and this has allowed them to develop a detailed genetic study of the bacteria that cause this disease.
Professor Mike Taylor, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Surrey has stated: 'Not all excavations provide good quality DNA, but in this case, the leprosy DNA extracted from the skeleton was in such good condition that we were able to identify its strain«.
The result of the analysis shows that the leprosy strain belongs to a lineage that had previously been found in medieval burials in Scandinavia and southern Britain, but in the case of the latter of a greater antiquity, from the 5th or 6th century BC..
The identification of fat molecules from the leprosy bacteria has DNA result confirmed and it has allowed to show the difference in age of the vines.
On the other hand, isotopes of man's teeth have shown that it probably did not come from Great Britain, but somewhere in northern Europe (maybe from southern scandinavia), which fits with the DNA results and raises the possibility that the leprosy strain could reach Scandinavia when the man emigrated from Great Britain.
Although leprosy is currently a tropical disease, it was very frequent in Europe. Human migrations helped it to spread and some cases of skeletons from western Europe with this disease have been recorded, dating from the 7th century BC. onwards. However, the origins of this disease are still unclear and therefore, the study of this skeleton has offered the opportunity to learn more about the beginnings of the spread of leprosy.