Doctors calling on WHO to combat HTLV-1 virus – a cousin of HIV

Presence of both the human T-cell leukemia type-1 virus (HTLV-1) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) revealed in the transmission electron microscopic (TEM) image, 1980. Image courtesy Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Doctors from the Global Virus Network, an international group of virologists, are calling on the World Health Organization to work on strategies to prevent the transmission of HTLV-1 – a virus related to HIV.

“Since my colleagues and I discovered HTLV-1, the first known human retrovirus in 1980 and the first virus shown to directly cause human cancer and later shown also to cause neurological and immune disorders, we have learned that this destructive and lethal virus is causing much devastation in communities with high prevalence,” said Dr. Robert Gallo, director of the Global Virus Network.

He was “astounded” to learn of a recent study in central Australia, which found that 34 per cent of indigenous people in the region tested positive for the virus, he said in a press release.

“Our global community has been slow to respond to the HTLV-1 predicament,” the network wrote in an open letter. They hope that the WHO develops clear guidelines on strategies to prevent the disease’s transmission.

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“You can think of HTLV-1 as a cousin of the AIDS virus,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

HTLV-1, or Human T Cell Leukemia Virus-1, is a blood-borne virus, so it’s transmitted in many of the same ways as HIV, he said: sexual contact, needle-sharing and it is sometimes passed from mother to infant during birth.

However, he said, it doesn’t transmit nearly as readily as HIV, and so has remained localized in places like Australia, southern Japan, parts of Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The Global Virus Network estimates that about 266,000 individuals in the U.S. are infected with HTLV-1 or -2.


“Once you’re infected, the vast majority of people do not become ill,” said Schaffner. “The illness it does cause will occur 20 or 30 years later, after you have acquired your infection, and the illness that’s produced is a lymphoma – a cancer of the lymph glands.”

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If this happens, it can be very serious and progress rapidly, he said.

According to the Global Virus Network, HTLV-1 can also cause some chronic conditions like chronic inflammatory pulmonary disease and dermatitis.

How dangerous is it?

Although everyone agrees that the virus is quite serious for those people who are infected, there’s some disagreement on its threat to the broader world population.

The Global Virus Network says that as it is a cancer-causing virus, it should be given the same kind of attention as other cancer-prevention efforts. They also call for prevention activities like the promotion of safe sex, using sterile needles and screening blood and organ donations for the virus.

But not everyone thinks that HTLV-1 is a public health priority, at least in the developed world. “It’s an issue. It’s a problem,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

“But in terms of the press of issues, the extent of the illness that occurs and the potential for rapid spread, it’s pretty far down the list. Fortunately.”

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Advances in AIDS research – such as a possible vaccine someday – could likely be applied to HTLV-1, to help people with this condition, he thinks. Like HIV, there is currently no cure.

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