A collaborative study led by University College London (UCL) scientists, following the discovery of a shrouded body in a sealed chamber overlooked by tomb robbers, found evidence of both diseases in a range of archaeological remains dating from the 1st to the 15th centuries.
An initial examination of the body, currently under analysis in Israel, revealed signs of co-infection of TB and leprosy in the bone tissue. The collaborative team, led by Dr Helen Donoghue and Dr Mark Spigelman from UCL's Centre for Infectious Diseases and International Health, went on to identify co-infection in ancient bones around Europe, where the DNA of the bacteria behind both diseases was detected in 42 per cent of the samples examined.
In the Middle Ages leprosy was a widespread, much-feared disease which unaccountably declined around the same time that tuberculosis began to spread across Europe. TB went on to become a major long-term epidemic disease, with one-third of the world's population now infected and more than 8 million new cases in the year 2000 alone.
Researchers now believe that the two trends were no coincidence. In fact, the new findings suggest that TB overtook leprosy as the more aggressive, faster-killing disease.
Dr Mark Spigelman says: "We stumbled across this discovery while examining a shrouded body excavated by Israeli archaeologist Dr Shimon Gibson. The body from around Jerusalem dated from the 1st century AD, when the normal burial practice was to wrap it in a shroud, then return after a suitable time and rebury the bones in an ossuary.
"In this case, the shrouded body had not been re-buried. We thought there must have been a reason for this, so we decided to look for signs of leprosy - a cause of fear and stigma at the time - in additio
Contact: Jenny Gimpel
University College London