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Deadly virus sparks meeting in Alice

Representatives of Aboriginal community-controlled health services in Central Australia, Alice Springs Hospital and key research groups will meet in August as an $8 million taskforce is launched to tackle the potentially deadly HTLV-1 virus in Australia.

The move comes as 60 top international scientists earlier this month called on the World Health Organisation to help eradicate the sexually transmitted virus, which they described as “one of the most potent human carcinogens”.

Experts have estimated that up to 10,000 people in Central Australia may have the virus, for which there is currently no cure.

Central Australian Aboriginal Congress chief executive officer Donna Ah Chee said Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations would be vital in addressing HTLV-1.

“This is a virus that has been in Central Australia for likely thousands of years and as yet its full significance is uncertain,” Ms Ah Chee said.

She said the August meeting, to be held in Alice Springs, was planned before the Federal Government announced the new taskforce.

A meeting of Aboriginal leaders and organisations from across Central Australia would also be held to discuss HTLV-1, she said.

‘We need a considered response’

“There has been much publicity on this in recent weeks and now it is time to take stock and carefully consider the issue and an appropriate response,” Ms Ah Chee said.

“We cannot have a top-down, knee-jerk reaction and we all need to work together to make sure this does not occur.

“One thing that is obvious is that this virus is nowhere near as harmful as HIV – if it was we would have known long ago.

“However, we do know that it can be spread sexually along with other important infections and it will be important to ensure that some of these new funds are used to reduce STIs in general, including HTLV-1.”

Ms Ah Chee said HTLV-1 had caused “a small number of rare cancers” in Central Australia.

She said most cancer was caused by smoking, alcohol, poor diet and obesity.

Federal Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt and Health Minister Greg Hunt jointly announced the new taskforce would be headed by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy.

Professor Murphy could not be reached for comment this week.

The ministers said the taskforce would bring together Aboriginal communities, health providers, researchers, clinicians and all levels of government and develop a “roadmap” to respond to the issue.

“The Chief Medical Officer will work with the states and territories to get to the cause of HTLV-1,” Mr Hunt said.

“At present its overall impacts are not well understood due to data collection difficulties and the limitations of existing information.”

Close collaboration is vital

Mr Wyatt said there would be close consultation with Aboriginal families and communities to consider what they believe is the best response.

“Collaboration between governments and the health science sector is critical,” Mr Wyatt said.

“However, progress on HTLV-1 and other communicable diseases will only be achieved through working and walking together with our First Nations people from the start.”

The funding is on top of $8.8 million that is being spent to combat syphilis in Northern and Central Australia.

The WHO did not respond to inquiries from NIT this week about possible international action against HTLV-1.

Other countries where HTLV-1 is prevalent include Brazil, the Central African Republic, Gabon, Jamaica, Japan, Nigeria and Romania.

HTLV-1 can lead to kidney failure, lung disease, inflammation of the spinal cord and other infections.

About 5-10 percent of people with the virus develop a fatal form of leukaemia.

In a letter to WHO this month the Global Virus Network, a body made up of the world’s top virus scientists, said HTLV-1 could be transmitted through infected body fluids, unprotected sex, breastfeeding, sharing needles, blood transfusions and transplantation of infected blood and organ donations.

Wendy Caccetta


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