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How A Virus Called HTLV-1 From 1500-Year-Old Mummies Infected 40 Percent Of Adults In Rural Australia

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An ancient virus that is a cousin of HIV is infecting a large portion of indigenous people in Australia, and doctors are unsure how it got to be so prevalent.

Problems Of The HTLV-1 Virus

HTLV-1, or Human T-lymphotropic virus 1, is a human retrovirus that can cause harmful diseases such as bronchitis, leukemia, and lymphoma. Researchers have found traces of the virus in 1500-year-old Andean mummies.

A recent preliminary study from the Baker Institute for Heart and Diabetes in Alice Springs found that 40 percent of adults living in a remote region in Australia are infected with HTLV-1. Less than 14 percent of the population had HTLV-1 in 1993.

In addition, 30 percent of patients have diseases that could have resulted from HTLV-1. The study took place between 2015 and 2018.

"This is probably the highest-ever reported prevalence in any population," said Dr. Graham Taylor, a clinician and professor at Imperial College London.

Most of the infected adults are members of the indigenous community in Australia.

"People are scared," an Aboriginal woman told The Guardian. "We should work quietly, telling people in language. We should show love and care to people who are sick."

In addition to Australia, HTLV-1 can also be found in other countries around the world. There are reported cases in parts of Japan, Brazil, Columbia, Gabon, Iran, and Romania. There are very few reported cases in the United States and the United Kingdom. About 20 million people in the world are infected with the virus.

What Caused The HTLV-1 Virus To Spread?

Although the virus is a sexually transmitted infection, there are also other ways that it can spread. Some people have passed on the virus through blood transfusions and breastfeeding.

Despite the age of the virus, very few efforts have been devoted to stopping it. Poorer communities are often the most vulnerable to the virus because of the lack of health resources. Drug companies and the media often overlook these poor communities. There is also currently no vaccine for it.

"Nobody that I know of in the world has done anything about trying to treat this disease before," said Robert Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Researchers are still unsure why the rate of HTLV in rural Australia has nearly tripled over the past 25 years.

What Can Be Done To Help People With HTLV-1?

To combat the rise of HTLV-1, governments should devote resources to treating patients and finding a cure.

As of 2018, Japan is the only country that has antenatal screening programs, and vaccines. Japan also has conducted some research into prevention of the virus.

Researchers are begging the Australian government to initiate screenings for rural communities. There should also be an awareness campaign so that people know what symptoms to look out for.

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