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HTLV-1 Virus Threatens Australian Aborigines: International Coalition Calls On WHO To Eradicate HIV’s Distant Cousin

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An international coalition of medical virologists urged the WHO to implement strategies to eradicate the HTLV-1 virus. HTLV-1 is a distant relative of HIV, which can also be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse.  ( Anoek De Groot | AFP/Getty Images )

Thousands of Aborigines living in a remote town in Central Australia are affected by the HTLV-1 virus, a distant relative of HIV which causes lymphoma and leukemia in some patients.

Researchers discovered HTLV-1 or human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 in 1979, but limited research has been conducted about the nature, prevention, and treatment of the disease. A person infected by the virus can develop diseases of the nervous system, bronchiectasis, a damaging condition of the lungs, and a weakened immune system.

Roughly 40 million people around the world are affected by HTLV-1. In an open letter addressed to WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, 60 doctors, scientists, and advocates urged the World Health Organization to implement five steps to eradicate HTLV-1.

"Here, we propose the universal HTLV-1 testing of blood and organ donors, and the prevention of HTLV-1 positive blood transfusion and organ transplantations," the letter stated. "We offer to support the WHO to develop [an] HTLV-1 Fact Sheet, which provides clear advice that HTLV-1 is an oncovirus and can cause severe inflammation."

The abbreviated version of the letter is published on May 12 in the journal The Lancet.

Difficult Detection

What makes HTLV-1 symptoms difficult to prevent is the fact that an infected person remains asymptomatic for about 40 years or more. During this period, the infected person can unknowingly spread the disease.

The letter reported that HTLV-1 is prevalent in other countries such as Japan, Brazil, some parts of Africa, and the Caribbean. The current prevalence rate in the town of Alice Springs in Central Australia is 40 percent among adults. The signatories also highlighted the importance of HTLV-1 transmission through sexual interaction.

HTLV-1 Sexual Transmission

The Global Virus Network, an international coalition of medical virologists, said that HTLV-1 transmission is the same way as HIV, which is through body fluids and unprotected sexual intercourse. Sharing of needles, breastfeeding by an infected mother, and transfusion and transplantation of infected blood and organs contribute to the spread of the disease.

"As with most sexually transmitted viruses, the majority of HTLV positive people transmit the virus unknowingly and are unaware that they are at risk of developing HTLV-1 associated diseases," said Dr. Fabiola Martin a sexual health, HIV and HTLV physician and scientist based in Brisbane, Australia. "The statistics speak for themselves and with it the support of the World Health Organization we will be able to support patients and promote effective HTLV-1 prevention strategies internationally."

Experts said that most cases of HTLV-1 occur in remote areas, where access to medical care is scarce. Susan Marriott, a professor in the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said it is possible to eradicate HTLV-1, but it will be "a challenging task."

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