A team of researchers from McMaster University in Canada made a big discovery with the help of a 16th century mummy. This belonged to a two-year-old child who was initially believed to have been suffering from smallpox. However, they decided to perform a genetic analysis and discovered the actual cause of death was hepatitis B. This proves the disease has been around for more centuries than we thought.
The mummy had actually died of hepatitis B
The child must have died sometime around 1569, and was found buried in Naples, Italy, in the Basilica of Saint Domenico Maggiore. Researchers discovered the mummy between 1983 and 1983, and saw it was covered in some strange marks which resembled smallpox. After studying the marks, they discovered traces of smallpox particles in them, so they assumed this was the cause of death.
These findings were important for establishing the evolution of smallpox throughout time. Researchers couldn’t tell how early the disease appeared, and this would have been the oldest evidence of its presence in the Medieval world. However, it turned out it wasn’t actually smallpox that killed the boy.
Hepatitis B left marks on the body similar to those of smallpox
This wasn’t the only disease which could leave blister marks on a person. Hepatitis B is an infection of the liver but, if small children contract it, they are left with similar marks on the face, legs, arms, and bottom. On all these areas, the mummy showed blisters.
To solve the mystery, researchers collected samples from the skin and bones of the mummy and performed a genetic analysis on them. This way, they reconstructed the genome of the disease which killed the boy. The result wasn’t smallpox, but hepatitis B.
They also performed an advanced type of electron microscopy, and what they found didn’t resemble none of the viruses they were looking for. This way, they concluded that, during mummification, the virus might have been altered and took an unrecognizable form. Also, this explains why they mistook the virus for Variola at first (the virus that causes smallpox).