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HTLV-1: Incurable Sexually Transmitted Virus Threatens Aboriginal Communities

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A virus with ties to HIV is on the rise in aboriginal communities in Australia. The blood-borne virus is sexually transmitted and can also be passed from mother to child.

HTLV-1

Just like its cousin HIV, which over time causes AIDS, the T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) has no cure and causes deadly complications. Unlike HIV, however, the symptoms of HTLV-1 takes longer to appear. Some people may have the virus for decades before chronic complications emerge.

HTLV-1 can cause inflammation of the skin, lungs, and eyes and those infected by it are at risk of becoming disabled through spinal injuries. They are also at risk of developing leukemia. Up to 10 percent of all who are infected will develop a rapidly deadly form of leukemia and those who do die within a year of diagnosis.

The virus is becoming more prevalent in remote regions affecting indigenous communities. Cases can be found in Africa, South America, and southern Japan but researchers said that Australia has the highest rate of HTLV-1 infection in the world.

Researchers from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute revealed that 45 percent of indigenous adults in central Australia carry the virus. The most common complication observed in these communities is a severe lung disease called bronchiectasis.

Neglected Virus

Researchers think that the virus likely arrived in Australia from Indonesia thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, it continues to affect aboriginal communities.

One of the challenges in dealing with the virus is that most of the people infected by it are not aware they have it and a large number of aboriginal communities have not been tested.

The virus is also spreading with population movement. It is estimated that 5 to 10 million people worldwide are affected.

"It's very suggestive that we have a major problem and it really pays no attention to borders, these very artificial constructs of Europeans," said Lloyd Einsiedel, of the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

HTLV-1 was discovered as early as the 1980s alongside HIV but the global research community appears to have neglected it. Health experts cited the importance raising awareness about the seriousness of the disease.

"We need to stimulate more governmental involvement, we need to push the importance of the disease, the seriousness of it. We could do much better. We need to do significantly more with HTLV-1," said Robert Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland's school of medicine.

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