A deadly virus has re-emerged in Australia with alarming prevalence, and experts are calling for greater efforts to stop the spread of transmission, as CNN reported Monday. Among them is the man who first discovered the ancient virus, human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), almost 40 years ago, Dr. Robert Gallo.
“The prevalence is off the charts,” said Gallo, who is the cofounder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the laboratory that first detected HTLV-1 in 1979 and published the findings in 1980. And now the ancient virus is wreaking havoc in the country’s Northern Territory.
The rates of HTLV-1 are exceeding 40 percent among adults in remote regions of central Australia, with indigenous communities being the hardest hit, especially in the town of Alice Springs. Gallo, along with many other experts, is hoping to raise alarm and draw attention to how little has been done to prevent, test for, and treat HTLV-1, which reportedly can cause leukemia and lymphoma.
Despite this disturbing and rapid spread of the virus in this area, “nobody that I know of in the world has done anything about trying to treat this disease before,” said Gallo, who is also cofounder 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.”
The ancient virus, whose DNA can be found in 1,500-year-old Andean mummies, is acquired similarly to HIV in that it can transfer from mother to child (particularly through breastfeeding), between sexual partners through condomless sex, and by blood contact (such as through transfusions or IV drug needles). Because it can be transmitted through sex, HTLV-1 is considered an STI.
HTLV-1 is sometimes called a “cousin” of HIV due to their fundamental similarities. The virus is associated with numerous serious health problems, such as diseases of the nervous system and a lung-damaging condition called bronchiectasis, as well as weakens the immune system.
Experts say urgent focus is needed to address this dangerous emergence, “which is probably the highest-ever reported prevalence in any population,” said Dr. Graham Taylor, a clinician and professor at Imperial College London who runs the United Kingdom’s HTLV clinical service based at St. Mary’s Hospital. “But if we look globally, we know about HTLV-1 in a number of countries."
HTLV-1 is present throughout the world, but there are certain areas where it is highly endemic, including isolated pockets in southwestern Japan, the Caribbean, South America, intertropical Africa, and the Middle East. Globally, in most other places (including the U.S. and the U.K.), HTLV-1 is extremely rare.
“The interesting thing about central Australia, of course, is you can go back 25 years, and the high rates of HTLV-1 were published 25 years ago in that community,” Taylor said, referring to a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1993 finding that HTLV-1 was endemic among natives in inland Australia — with a 13.9 percent prevalence in the Alice Springs area.
Regardless of past failures to address the issue, Taylor says immediate action is needed, especially because so many are already suffering and dying due to the virus. “It’s causing a problem of bronchiectasis. People are dying of bronchiectasis in association with HTLV-1 infection, and what is the response? If you can’t see a response, then you might say it’s neglected,” Taylor told CNN. “The virus is neglected, and the diseases that it causes are neglected.”
Gallo agrees and says many regions around the world impacted by HTLV-1 are poorer communities that often go overlooked by the medical establishment, and don’t have as many health care resources. Though he says it is “possible” that another, more easily transmittable variant of the virus might exist in some of these indigenous communities. Either way, more research and attention to HTLV-1 is necessary.
Despite this new alarming spike of cases in Australia, Gallo adds there is no reason for the rest of the world to be concerned about the virus becoming a global pandemic anytime soon.
"This virus, I don’t care what the variation is, will not transmit casually,” he explained. However, immediate action is needed for the indigenous people of Australia who are already being affected by HTLV-1.