Major Task Force Established To Address Devastating HTLV-1 Virus In Australia

Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1, or HTLV-1, a relative of HIV affecting up to 20 million people globally, currently has no immunization or cure. The virus spreads through contaminated blood, breast milk, and unprotected sex and can cause severe lung disease, inflammation of the spinal cord, and kidney failure. Between 5 and 10% of those who contract the virus develop a fatal form of leukemia. Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced the establishment of an $AU8 million task force comprised of doctors and Aboriginal health organizations to address HTLV-1 in Australia, which currently has no strategy in place to tackle the virus. The rate of transmission of the virus within central Australian Aboriginal communities is the fastest, globally.

Health Minister Greg Hunt stated that “This is something we need to address on our time, on our watch, and that’s what we’re doing.” The chief executive of Congress, Australia’s largest Aboriginal community health organization, Donna Ah Chee, holds that “the role of Aboriginal people is critical in shaping the response and it cannot be left to a task force of experts alone.” If the task force is successful is dependent on “respect for local knowledge,” and it must “promot[e] culturally acceptable and appropriate health information and care.”

The establishment of a major task force can be considered a crucial and overdue step towards combating HTLV-1 in Australia, and contributing to the international efforts to research the virus, lower transmission rates, and discover treatment for it. Going forward, it is vital that the task force exists as a genuine collaboration between scientific experts, the Australian government, and the Aboriginal health organizations involved. In some communities within the Alice Springs region of Australia, up to 45% of adults have contracted HTLV-1. Importantly, those voices most impacted by the virus must not be drowned out in the implementation of this necessary initiative.

HTLV-1 was discovered by Robert Charles Gallo in 1980, four years before the discovery of HIV. The virus is endemic within central Australia, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Japan. Despite its gravity, it has historically been critically under-acknowledged within the global research community. In 2014, the Global Virus Network created a much-needed task force for HTLV-1, with the goal of “speed[ing] the pathway to the discovery of drugs that will stop virus transmission or progression from infection to disease, in addition to educating the public about the nature of these viruses, the diseases they cause and how to prevent their spread.” In Australia, independent medical research body, the Baker Institute, is working with remote Aboriginal communities to establish how widespread the virus has become.

HTLV-1 has had devastating effects internationally for decades, but in the past it has generally been neglected within scientific research, limiting progress towards achieving measurable change. Thankfully, recent international initiatives have emerged with the goal of combating the virus, and it is extremely positive that Australia has finally joined global efforts towards reducing the impact of HTLV-1. Looking to the future, the major new task force in Australia represents a vital step towards preventing the spread of the virus, treating it, and working towards discovering a cure.

Catherina Pagani