Doctors raise alarm over ancient virus in Australia

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Canberra, May 8 (IANS) Doctors have called for greater efforts to stop the spread of an ancient virus infecting residents across Australia’s Northern Territory, the media reported on Tuesday.

The rates of human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) infection are exceeding 40 per cent among adults in remote regions of central Australia, with indigenous communities being the hardest hit, especially in the town of Alice Springs, reports CNN.

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.

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The virus is associated with serious health problems, such as diseases of the nervous system and a lung-damaging condition called bronchiectasis.

HTLV-1 is sometimes called a cousin of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

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 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.

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A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1993 found that HTLV-1 was endemic among natives in inland Australia, with a high 13.9 per cent prevalence in the Alice Springs area, reports CNN.

However, it remains unclear whether the sample in that old study was of the same population currently experiencing a higher prevalence rate.

–IANS

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