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Cancer-causing virus is 'off the charts' in parts of Australia


An ancient virus is ‘off the charts’ in remote regions of Australia, according to an infectious-disease specialist.

HTLV-1, which can cause leukemia and lymphoma, has infected more than 40 per cent of adults in isolated communities in central Australia, with indigenous people being the worst hit.

Dubbed the cousin of HIV, which is thought to be due to the two viruses being discovered within years of each other, HTLV-1 has already caused natives to die of the lung condition bronchiectasis.

It is unclear exactly why Australia is experiencing such an outbreak, which one expert has called ‘the greatest ever reported in any population’.

Yet, some believe the HTLV-1 virus found down under may have mutated, causing it to be more easily spread between people via breastfeeding, unprotected sex and blood transfusions.

According to the specialist, HTLV-1, which has been found in 1,500-year-old mummies, has received little attention due to fears of HIV and AIDS gripping the public.

An ancient virus is 'off the charts' in remote regions of Australia, an expert says (stock)

An ancient virus is ‘off the charts’ in remote regions of Australia, an expert says (stock)

How serious is HTLV-1 infection? 

Speaking of the outbreak, Dr Robert Gallo, who helped discover the virus nearly four decades ago, told CNN: ‘The prevalence is off the charts.’

Infectious-disease expert Dr Lloyd Einsiedel said the infection is now spreading into other areas including Adelaide and Perth.

For people with ‘a lot of the virus’ in their blood, Dr Einsiedel said it is ‘the most potent carcinogenic virus that we know of’. 

Dr Graham Taylor, from Imperial College London, who runs the UK’s HTLV service, added that the Australian outbreak is ‘probably the highest-ever reported prevalence in any population’.

HTLV-1 has infected over 40 per cent of adults in communities in central Australia (stock)

HTLV-1 has infected over 40 per cent of adults in communities in central Australia (stock)

WHAT IS HTLV-1?

HTLV-1 is a virus that infects T cells, which make up people’s immune systems.

It has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma and paralysis of the lower limbs.

Around 95 per cent of infected people experience no symptoms. 

Yet, these can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Thirst
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever
  • Frequent infections 

Between two and five per cent of infected people develop leukemia, while 0.25-to-2 per cent experience lower limb paralysis.  

HTLV-1 is spread via breastfeeding, unprotected sex, blood transfusions and sharing needles. 

There is no cure or treatment. 

Management focuses on screening blood donors, promoting safe sex and discouraging shared needle use.

Screening pregnant women can also decrease the risk of infection via breastfeeding.  

Where else is HTLV-1 in the world? 

According to Dr Gallo, little research is being done into HTLV-1’s prevention despite the virus being present throughout the world, including in southwestern Japan, regions of South America, such as Brazil, and parts of the Caribbean.

HTLV-1 rates are low in the US and UK. 

The virus typically affects poor people, who do not have access to medical treatment, Dr Gallo adds.

Although donated blood samples and tissues are often tested for HTLV-1 in the US, Japan is thought to be the only country that screens for the infection during pregnancy and then recommends formula feeding. 

What is HTLV-1?

HTLV-1 is a virus that infects T cells, which are involved in people’s immune systems.

Around 95 per cent of people infected with HTLV-1 show no symptoms, however, it can cause leukemia, lymphoma and paralysis of the lower limbs.

Symptoms of infection can include fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, thirst, nausea, vomiting, fever and frequent infections. 

There is no treatment or cure. Disease management focuses on preventing infection via screening blood donors, promoting safe sex and discouraging needle sharing.  



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