Remote Indigenous Communities Have World’s Highest Rate of Rare Leukemia Virus | Review of northern beaches

A new study has found that remote aboriginal communities in central Australia have the highest prevalence of human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) in the world.

The study, published in the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, studied 720 people in seven remote communities in Central Australia from 2014 to 2018. It found an overall infection rate of 36.8% in adults, with infection rates climbing with age to 49.3 % for those over 45 years old.

“In the first large-scale community-based study of the prevalence of HTLV-1 in Central Australia, we found an adult prevalence of 36.8%, the highest reported globally,” the authors write in their article, led by Lloyd Einsiedel of the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. in Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

“The prevalence increased with age, suggesting that sexual contact may be the predominant mode of transmission. “

The little-known HTLV-1 virus is found all over the world, with high prevalence in Japan, the Caribbean, parts of South America and tropical Africa.

Destructive diseases caused by the leukemia virus

The virus works by attacking the immune system, infecting T cells.

While many infected people will never show symptoms, the illnesses the virus can cause can be devastating and are made worse by a lack of access to high-quality medical care.

One of the diseases is adult T cell lymphoma. This is a particularly aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that can cause enlarged lymph nodes, confusion, bone pain, and severe constipation. The disease is curable in some cases with treatment.

HTLV-1-associated myelopathy, on the other hand, is a slow, progressive disease of the spinal cord that acts similarly to multiple sclerosis (MS), reducing mobility and cognition over time.

Uveitis, another illness associated with HTLV-1, is prevalent in Aboriginal communities. If left untreated, it can cause blindness over a remarkably short period of time – on average around 21 months, according to a study in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Treatment for uveitis is extremely important, as blindness is a huge problem for many Native Australians; it is estimated that 90 percent of visual impairment or blindness experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is preventable.

The HTLV-1 virus can also contribute to a myriad of other health problems, including a lung disease called bronchiectasis, and conditions that affect the skin and thyroid gland.

But despite appearing among such a high proportion of Aboriginal Australians, the authors of the new study say there is no public health strategy to control the transmission of HTLV-1 in Australia.

“A worrying and inexcusable gap”

In fact, their study is the first large-scale analysis of its prevalence among First Nations peoples, beginning the process of filling a worrying and inexcusable gap in medical research.

“A better understanding of the patterns of HTLV-1 occurrence at the community level is essential to guide the development of public health initiatives aimed at reducing transmission,” the team writes.

They add that prevention is critically important because HTLV-1 infection lasts a lifetime and cannot be treated.

The results of their study, they conclude, support the need “to implement a coordinated program to educate Aboriginal Australians about the risks posed by HTLV-1 infection and to reduce the risk of viral transmission in this population.”

  • This article is published in partnership with Cosmos Magazine. Cosmos is produced by the Royal Australian Institution to inspire curiosity for “The Science of Everything” and to make the world of science accessible to all.


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