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Doctors report that the human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1), sometimes called HIV’s cousin, is spreading throughout Australia’s Northern Territory, badly affecting the region’s indigenous population.

Dr. Robert Gallo, who is credited with discovering the virus in 1979, claims that its “prevalence is off the charts,” with over 40 percent prevalence in some regions of Australia. HTLV-1 is endemic in over 30 countries, including Japan, Brazil, South Africa and the US, but outside small clusters the virus has a prevalence lower than 5 percent.

While HTLV-1 was the first retrovirus to be discovered, it has been mostly ignored by the medical and scientific community. In a similar way to HIV, the virus transmits through unprotected sex, from mother to child during childbirth and breast feeding and through blood transfusions. Infection usually begins asymptomatically, with 90 percent of those infected remaining asymptomatic carriers throughout their lives. HTLV-1, however, is responsible for many diseases including adult T-cell leukemia, lymphoma, bronchiectasis and myelopathy.

Despite the potential dangers, the virus has been neglected possibly due to its prevalence in poor and isolated communities. There are few efforts to diagnose, treat or prevent its transmission, with few countries screening for HTLV-1 in blood transfusions or donated organs and only Japan screening for it prenatally.

While Gallo states that there is no reason for panic, he does call for action for greater efforts to diagnose and fight this virus. As he explains, there is no vaccine or treatment for HTLV-1 so far but limited efforts are underway to find ways to address this disease.


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