An ancient virus infecting residents across Australia’s Northern Territory is leaving death and despair in its path, and doctors are now calling for greater efforts to stop the spread of infections.
The rates of human T-cell leukemia virus type 1, or HTLV-1, infection are exceeding 40% among adults in remote regions of central Australia, with indigenous communities being the hardest hit, especially in the town of Alice Springs.
Many doctors — including the man who discovered the virus nearly four decades ago — are raising the alarm about how little has been done to prevent, test for and treat HTLV-1, which can cause leukemia and lymphoma.
“The prevalence is off the charts” in Australia, said Dr. Robert Gallo, co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose laboratory was the first to detect HTLV-1 in 1979 and publish the finding in 1980.
Yet “nobody that I know of in the world has done anything about trying to treat this disease before,” said Gallo, who is also co-founder and scientific director of the Global Virus Network and chairs the network’s HTLV-1 Task Force.
“There’s little to almost no vaccine efforts, outside of some Japanese research,” he said. “So prevention by vaccine is wide open for research.”
HTLV-1 — an ancient virus whose DNA can be found in 1,500-year-old Andean mummies — can spread from mother to child, particularly through breastfeeding; between sexual partners, through unprotected sex; and by blood contact, such as through transfusions. Because it can be transmitted through sex, it’s considered a sexually transmitted infection, or STI.
The virus is associated with myriad serious health problems, such as diseases of the nervous system and a lung-damaging condition called bronchiectasis, and it weakens the immune system. HTLV-1 is sometimes called a cousin of the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV.
Additionally, just a few years after HTLV-1 was discovered, HIV was identified for the first time. Between HTLV-1 and HIV, the latter got the most attention, Gallo said, partly because HIV is more efficient at transmitting.
Now, “we have to make up for what we didn’t do before,” he said. “We have to get attention to HTLV-1 quick.”
In other words, the high prevalence of HTLV-1 in central Australia has become something of a wakeup call for the world to do more to prevent and reduce infections from the virus.
“There’s a lack of knowledge about HTLV-1,” Taylor said.