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15 Apr 2021

WHO officially recognise HTLV-1 as Threatening Pathogen to Humans

Following years of advocacy by international researchers, The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified HTLV-1 as Threatening Pathogen to Humans.

HTLV-1, the Human T-cell lymphtrophic virus, affects up to 10 million people worldwide and is endemic in remote Aboriginal communities.

Yet it remains a virus few people have heard of.

From a similar family of viruses as HIV, infection can lead to neurological diseases and blood cancers. While infection does not deplete the white blood cells where it replicates, it suppresses the protective activity of the immune system. How this works needs further study.

There is no treatment or cure.

Following a special symposium on HTLV-1 at the Global Virus Network’s (GVN) 9th International Meeting at the Doherty Institute in 2017, a team of researchers and advocates from across the globe penned an open letter to the WHO, published in The Lancet, calling for an end to HTLV-1.

Members of the GVN’s HTLV-1 Task Force then petitioned Ministers of Health around the globe to call on the WHO to recognise HTLV-1 as a threatening pathogen to humans, and in 2018 the WHO invited the network to assemble a team to provide a review on the issue.  

Now their continued advocacy has paid off, with the announcement today that HTLV-1 had been classified as Threatening Pathogen to Humans.

University of Melbourne Professor Damian Purcell, a Laboratory Head at the Doherty Institute, was one of the signatories to the original letter and a member of the GVNs HTLV-1 Task Force and says the new classification will help shed light on the situation and encourage proactive steps towards combating the virus. 

“There’s an opportunity to prevent transmission of HTLV-1, but it was not even on the table in Australia or globally as a major issue,” Professor Purcell said.

“Thanks to global investment and public health interventions, great advances have been made in the fight against HIV-1 and we need the same approach to be applied to HTLV-1.

“We believe this new classification of the virus by the WHO will encourage research to develop effective treatments and preventive vaccines.  Recognition of this medical-need should influence investors to focus their attention and funding in support of HTLV-1 eradication”.