Kirby Institute partners on WHO report for prevention and control of HTLV-1

News | Published on 16 Mar 2021

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a new report that comprehensively addresses the prevention and control of the Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) for the first time since this human retrovirus was discovered over 40 years ago. The report is the outcome of the first ever global consultation on HTLV-1 that took place in Tokyo in November 2019. The Kirby Institute worked closely with WHO and a number of other partners to provide the working papers for the consultation and the new report. 

HTLV-1 causes a chronic lifelong infection in humans. Like HIV, it is transmitted through breast feeding, sexual intercourse and blood contact, but it differs very substantially in regard to its disease profile. While most people with HTLV-1 do not appear to have any health consequences, around 5% develop a very serious form of leukaemia, 2-5% have debilitating neurological complications, and there is an increase in all-cause mortality of 60% for reasons that are poorly understood. 

HTLV-1 is geographically highly localised, with endemic areas in Japan, the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, Iran, Melanesia and Central Australia. There are large gaps in data for many countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, so estimates of global prevalence in the 5-10 million range may be lower than the true numbers.

A key recommendation arising from the consultation is the need for comprehensive integration of HTLV-1 testing and prevention into existing strategies for the control of blood-borne viral and sexually transmitted infections. Another priority is the development of treatment guidelines for HTLV-1 and its disease complications. 

Professor John Kaldor and Associate Professor Rowena Bull, who were members of the Kirby Institute team that contributed to the consultation and report, will join colleagues from WHO to delve into the findings and strategies outlined in the report at an online briefing this Wednesday 17 March, 8pm AEDT. Viewers can join by following this link.