Cancer-causing HTLV-1 virus is common in parts of Australia

This ancient virus has been infecting humans for over 1500 years, and new figures show a worrisome trend in North Central Australia.
Karl Gruber
Karl Gruber
Freelance Science Writer
Cancer-causing HTLV-1 virus is common in parts of Australia

The human T cell leukaemia virus type 1, or HTLV-1, is a sexually transmitted virus that causes severe health conditions in humans. Worse still, there is no cure or treatment.

The deadliest of these conditions is a type of cancer affecting the body’s T cells. Another condition is called HTLV-1-associated myelopathy, and it affects the nervous system, with potentially deadly consequences.

The HTLV-1 virus is an old human foe that has been found in Andean mummies more than 1500 years old, according to one study.

Today, the virus is found around the world, infecting around 10 to 20 million people, though some parts of the world are worse affected than others. Experts warn that more research is needed to get a more accurate figure.

Get up to speed on the HTLV-1 virus

Video credit: The Infographics Show
Get up to speed on the HTLV-1 virus

The HTLV-1 virus was discovered more than 35 years ago in the laboratory of Robert Gallo. He is the co-founder and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the USA. He is also co-founder and scientific director of the Global Virus Network (GVN) in the USA and co-discovered the HIV virus back in the 1980s.

The HTLV-1 virus can be transmitted sexually and from mother to child through breastfeeding, but the most efficient mechanism of transmission is through blood, Robert explains.

About 12% of the people infected will develop serious conditions at some point in their lives, particularly cancer.

“Arguably, HTLV-1 is the most cancer-causing agent we know. No other virus or bacteria is known to cause cancer so efficiently,” Robert explains.

HTLV-1 in Australia

The HTLV-I virus is thought to have originated from multiple zoonotic events, likely involving the transmission of the virus from monkeys to humans. In Australia, where monkeys do not occur, the origin of this virus likely involved human migration, possibly from Indonesia a long time ago, Robert says.

Regardless of how or when the virus got here, it’s been quite successful at spreading and surviving in some populations.

According to recent estimates, in some communities of northern Australia, particularly Alice Springs, the rates of infection have reached alarming figures. Though the exact numbers are still unknown, it appears more prevalent among Indigenous Australians and often leads to further complications.

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Some communities in the Northern Territory of Australia have dangerously high infection rates of HTLV-1 possibly due to a lack of awareness and isolation.

Some communities in the Northern Territory of Australia have dangerously high infection rates of HTLV-1 possibly due to a lack of awareness and isolation.

This unusually high rate of infection is a bit of a mystery, but it has been attributed to a combination of the stealth infection pattern of the virus—you can get infected and feel perfectly normal for years—and the lack of proper healthcare approaches to prevent its spread.

A solution to this problem would be the development of a vaccine, but so far, there has been little research put towards that end.

No cure in sight?

With little effort put towards eliminating the spread of the virus and a lack of research funds invested in the development of a vaccine, things aren’t looking good.

There are currently no global healthcare policies in place to educate about this virus or prevent its spread. Robert thinks that part of the problem is that people are not aware of the HTLV-1 virus. This means that more effort is needed by the media to communicate the facts about this virus.

“Nothing is going to happen without more attention to this. Nothing will happen. We won’t have money to do research on it. There are very little funds available for research,” he says.

In a recent letter to the WHO, inspired by a meeting of the GVN in Melbourne last September, Robert and other world experts recommended several approaches that can be taken to prevent the transmission of the HTLV-1 virus.

Regarding Australia, Robert praised current efforts of the Australian Government to invest funds towards fighting the spread of this virus and believes Australia could become a leader in this arena.

But Gallo also stressed the need to learn more about how this virus works.

“We need more understanding of the immune disorder. That’s basic science. It sounds like all the money should be for practical immediate things, but this kind of basic science is practical and needed very much,” Robert says.

He thinks that, only when this basic science is understood, there might be hope for the development of a vaccine.

“Certainly, we need research on vaccines and therapies too,” Robert adds. At the public health level, he says that good statistics are needed. “We need to know precisely how many people are infected, how they are getting infected,” he says.

“To accomplish this, we will need to get the cooperation from all involved communities,” he adds.

In the recent letter to the WHO, Robert and Fabiola Martin, a member of the GVN HTLV-1 Task Force, highlight some of the key steps needed to beat this disease. So far, 60 signatures from scientists and other stakeholders from around the world support this letter. Hopefully, action follows and HTLV-1 will one day be eliminated for good.

Karl Gruber
About the author
Karl Gruber
Karl is an Evolutionary Biologist and a science communicator, passionate about the beauty behind science.
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Karl is an Evolutionary Biologist and a science communicator, passionate about the beauty behind science.
View articles


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