WHO urged to act to eliminate ancient virus HTLV-1 found in Australia
Scientists and doctors from around the globe are urging the World Health Organisation to tackle the “deadly” ancient virus HTLV-1, which has been found at “astounding” rates in Australia.
T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 — or HTLV-1 — is an ancient blood-borne virus, which has been detected at extremely high rates in Aboriginal communities in Australia.
The virus, considered to be a distant relative of HIV, does not affect all carriers but can cause an aggressive type of leukemia, spinal cord injury, and is associated with chronic lung infection.
There is currently no vaccine.
As the ABC revealed last month, an average of 45 per cent of adults in five Aboriginal communities in central Australia tested positive.
Dr Robert Gallo, an American virologist from the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, discovered HTLV-1 almost 40 years ago.
He told ABC the “destructive and lethal virus” had been neglected and he was staggered by its prevalence in Australia.
“I was astounded to learn of the hyper-endemic numbers in the Aboriginal population,” Dr Gallo said.
“It’s just so underfunded, so poorly recognised — a cancer-causing virus that can cause horrifying neurological disease.”
Dr Gallo and 50 other world-leading virologists and organisations from the Global Virus Network have written to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to say it’s “time to eradicate HTLV-1”.
In an open letter published today in the respected medical journal Lancet, they urge the WHO to promote new strategies to stop the global spread of the virus.
“HTLV-1 remains a strong threat to individual and community health, and even more so to global health because of the accelerated rate of human migration in recent times,” the letter reads.
Most Australians with HTLV-1 don’t know they carry it
HTLV-1 is found all over the world including in Brazil, Iran, Japan, Peru and Nigeria, where as many as 1.7 million adults may be infected.
About 5,000 adults are estimated to have the virus in central Australia, but most don’t know they carry it.
Dr Fabiola Martin, a sexual health and HTLV-1 expert from the University of Queensland, said testing in Australia needed to be stepped up.
Currently a test for the virus is not on the Medical Benefits Schedule.
“We would like to see really clear explanations around its testing and the diseases it causes,” she said.
“HTLV-1, like all blood-borne viruses, it doesn’t discriminate, it can be transmitted via bodily fluids, and people don’t know until they’re ill.
“We have a test that is reliable and quick, we just need to roll it out and those that are positive need to be supported.”
The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute is leading Australian research into HTLV-1, and is the only group working in remote areas to find out how widespread it is.
The institute’s Dr Lloyd Einsiedel told the ABC last month that much more research was needed to determine exactly many Australians are living with HTLV-1.
“We need to know the number of people infected in Australia, we need to be moving across borders.”
Professor Damian Purcell, who is investigating the virus at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne, said there was evidence it caused “very significant disease”.
“In Australia we have the absolute highest rates of HTLV-1 of anywhere on the planet,” he said.
“We have known for many years that simple prevention methods with HIV have been highly effective … so there’s not high-tech methodology required to actually make some impact.”