CANBERRA, May 25 (Xinhua) -- The Australian government will set up a taskforce of health experts to tackle the alarming problem of HTLV-1, a virus which is found in Aboriginal communities at 1,000 times the rate of anywhere else in the world.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Friday the government would spend 6 million U.S. dollars to establish the group, comprising doctors, Aboriginal health organisations and government officials, to focus on a response to HTLV-1, or human T-cell lymphotrophic virus type 1.
There is currently no strategy in Australia to prevent the virus, transmitted by unprotected sex, blood contact and breastfeeding, which can cause a rapidly fatal form of leukemia, and debilitating spinal cord inflammation. There is no vaccine, for example, and the test for HTLV-1 is not subsidized.
Hunt told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Friday he wanted "rapid action for early testing" and would ask the Medical Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce to investigate the option of making the test more affordable.
"If we have a test, we can have treatment and we can also engage with research on a cure, so this can make a profound difference to the health of mothers and babies," Hunt said.
In several communities in the Alice Springs region of the Northern Territory, 45 percent of adults have HTLV-1, and the virus is also associated with a severe, and often-fatal, lung condition called bronchiectasis.
HTLV-1 is a distant relative of HIV and was detected in 1979 in the United States, and later identified in Indigenous communities in Australia in 1988.
As the ABC revealed last month, research by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute indicated that thousands of Indigenous people in Central Australia unknowingly have HTLV-1, which can cause serious disease in 5-10 percent of carriers.