HTLV: a virus to look out for

“The Human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) is the first oncogenic retrovirus discovered. It primarily causes the development of tumors that could possibly lead to adult T-cell leukemia/lymphoma or cancers of the blood,” said Kenneth Punzalan, a Medical Technologist from the Transfusions-Transmissible Infections (TTI) – National Reference Laboratory (NRL) of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

Along with RITM’s TTI-NRL, Punzalan received a grant on their research study which aims to find out the prevalence of the HTLV among country’s donor population.

The HTLV virus infects the T lymphocytes (T-cells) of a person’s immune system. It is transmitted through pregnancy, sexual intercourse, contamination, and transfusion.

According to Punzalan, the last study on HTLV was published way back in the late 80s. The virus was said to have crossed from Taiwan to the Philippines and was found present among the Aeta tribe. The virus was found to be present among the Aeta group with 3 possible routes of HTLV introduction in the country: (1) via Japanese HTLV-1 carriers, (2) via African HTLV-1 carriers or (3) via virus carrying ancestors of these aboriginal people.

In the context of transfusion, he mentioned that tests performed on blood units in the Philippines are limited to detecting only five diseases namely, HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Syphilis, and Malaria.

“There are a lot of emerging and reemerging diseases that could affect our blood supply which would consequently cause problems for the recipient of the blood,” said Punzalan.

In comparison to other countries in South East Asia, HTLV testing is mandatory in blood donor screening due to the high prevalence of the virus in their region. Tthe Philippines lack significant data and prevalence studies on HTLV which would support decision-making in regards to blood safety.

Punzalan mentioned that if the result of the study is significant, they “would want to lobby a policy that would push HTLV to be included in the routine testing of blood donors.”

The one-year research study was granted by the Department of Health – Advancing Health through Evidence-Assisted Decisions (DOH-AHEAD).

by Allenor Enciso, Communication and Engagement Office