An ancient virus that's similar to HIV is spreading around Australia, and doctors are sounding the alarm

Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty ImagesAlice Springs
  • HTLV-1, an ancient virus similar to HIV, is spreading around Australia’s Northern Territory.
  • Some 40% of adults in certain parts of Australia, mostly indigenous communities, carry the virus.
  • There’s little research into how to treat and prevent HTLV-1, and doctors are calling for more research.

An ancient virus similar to HIV is spreading around Australia’s Northern Territory, and doctors are now sounding the alarm.

The virus, called human T-cell leukemia virus type 1, or HTLV-1, infects 40% of adults in some parts of Australia, with indigenous communities around the town of Alice Springs the hardest hit, reports CNN.

HTLV-1 can lead to leukemia and lymphoma diagnoses. It’s similar in some ways to the more well-known HIV virus, yet there’s scant research into how to treat and prevent the disease. Both HTLV-1 and HIV can be sexually transmitted and attack the immune system, though HTLV-1 is generally more difficult to transmit.

“Nobody that I know of in the world has done anything about trying to treat this disease before,” Dr. Robert Gallo, the director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told CNN. Gallo’s lab was the first to detect HTLV-1, in 1979.

“There’s little to almost no vaccine efforts, outside of some Japanese research,” Gallo added.

The virus can spread through unprotected sex, blood contact – like a transfusion – as well as between breastfeeding mothers and children. The virus is ancient: HTLV-1’s DNA has been found on a 1,500-year-old mummy discovered in South America’s Andes mountains.

HTLV-1 is also associated with a number of debilitating conditions, including bronchiectasis, a dangerous lung condition, as well as nervous-system diseases like myelopathy, which affects the spinal cord, and myopathy, which affects muscle tissue. It also weakens the immune system, similar to HIV.

It’s more difficult to spread than HIV, however, which some doctors say is why the virus has received less attention than HIV.

While prevalence of the disease is low in the US, the virus is “clustered” in central Australia.

“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,” Dr. Graham Taylor, a professor at Imperial College London, told CNN.

“The virus is neglected, and the diseases that it causes are neglected,” Taylor added.

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