This Virus That’s Known as HIV’s Cousin Is Spreading, and You Need to Know Your Risk

HIV is one of the most feared diseases out there. Rightly so because of its reach across the globe and the millions who have and continue to die from it. Now doctors are frightened that its sinister cousin is going to wreak the same havoc and we are not prepared to deal with it. Here’s everything we know about the HTLV-1 virus, where it came from, and the dangers it poses to you.

HTLV-1 Virus

researcher working in biology lab

Scientists are very concerned about the virus. | Gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images

HTLV-1 or human T-cell leukemia virus type 1, is an ancient virus that has been slipping under the radar for a long time. The virus causes a myriad of problems for those afflicted like adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma, HTLV-associated myelopathy, rheumatic syndromes, and bacterial infections. Essentially, HTLV-1 weakens the immune system in the same way as HIV.

Next: Here’s why this virus is so dangerous.

The virus is highly contagious

The virus is incredibly easy to spread. | Globalmoments/iStock/Getty Images

This virus spreads very easily. It can be transmitted from mother to child, mostly through breastfeeding. It can also be transmitted through blood transfusions and contact. And finally, it can be transmitted through sexual contact and is considered a sexually transmitted infection.

Next: Here’s the scariest part about it.

Most people don’t know that they have it

People visit Street Market in Rotterdam

The disease is incredibly hard to diagnose. | awicaksono/Getty Images

HTLV-1 is extremely hard to diagnose. That is because the virus is asymptomatic, meaning that it doesn’t cause any overt signs of sickness. Any of the later stage afflictions take a long time to present in the patient. ATL can take up to 30 years to present itself in the host.

Most screening processes don’t account for HTLV-1. Some blood banks and some prenatal clinics will screen for the virus, but the practice is not universal.

Next: If you are diagnosed, there’s not much that can be done.

There are no known cures

A scientist using a computer

Scientists don’t know how to treat the virus. | Getty Images

The virus was discovered quite some time ago, but there has not been a viable cure presented for it. Even worse, there are few treatments for the virus. This is a little like the time we discovered HIV/AIDS; Doctors just don’t know how to effectively treat the pandemic effectively. Prevention is the only line of defense we have.

Next: This already is a pandemic and everyone is at risk.

The virus is worldwide

Map showing the spread of the HTLV-1 Virus | National Institute of Health

The virus has been largely located in South American and African regions. However, large clusters have shown up in the Caribean, Japan, the Middle East and Austrailia. In fact, central Austrailia is currently hit the hardest. Some regions are reporting as much as 40% of the population is infected. Dr. Robert Gallo, co-founder, and director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said: “The prevalence is off the charts.”

Next: Here’s what can be done to stop this.

Countries are making better efforts to screen for HTLV-1

doctor waiting room

Only mother/child screenings are available today. | bowdenimages/iStock/Getty Images

Nagasaki, Japan has been practicing antenatal screening and recommending formula feeding since 1987. Some other countries like Jamaica and England are considering adopting the practice as well.

But that only address the mother/child vector of infection and the other ones. Organs and blood still need to be more vigorously screened. There also needs to be more efforts for practicing safer sex.

Next: If this disease goes completely unchecked, we may not be able to handle it.

The world isn’t prepared for a massive pandemic

Empty emergency room in a hospital

Viruses like HTLV-1 could become a pandemic. | Antonio_Diaz/Getty Images

Simply put, infectious diseases around the world are on the rise. The bird-flu in Asia, Zika in South and Central America, and MERS in the Middle-East are all extremely dangerous just like HTLV-1.

Unchecked, asymptomatic viruses are very dangerous because we could catch it’s spread in a reasonable way. Our tightly interconnected planet also adds to the dangers that these viruses pose.

Will HTLV-1 ultimately be our undoing? Only time will tell.

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