Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention

Definition

Human T cell lymphotropic virus (HTLV) infects a type of white blood cell called a T-cell or T-lymphocyte. White blood cells help fight infection.

Causes

HTLV infection is caused by a specific virus.

Risk Factors

There are two types of HTLV: HTLV-I and HTLV-II.

Factors that increase your chances of getting HTLV-I include:

  • Living in an area where the virus is common, such as Southern Japan, Caribbean countries, parts of Africa and South America, the Middle East, and Melanesia
  • Being breastfed by an infected mother
  • Receiving a blood transfusion or transplant in the United States before 1988
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who is infected with the virus, who is an injection drug user, or who is from an area where the virus is common
  • Injection drug use

Factors that increase your chances of getting HTLV-II include:

  • Ethnicity: American Indian or African Pygmy
  • Being breastfed by an infected mother
  • Receiving a blood transfusion in the United States before 1988
  • Having unprotected sex with someone who is infected with the virus or who is an injection drug user
  • Injection drug use

Symptoms

More than 95% of people with HTLV do not have symptoms. However, having the virus puts you at higher risk of developing certain conditions.

  • If you are infected with the HTLV-I virus, it is possible that you may also develop
    • Adult T-cell leukemia (ATL). This disease involves cancer of a specific group of blood cells.
    • Opportunistic infections, including Strongyloides stercoralis hyperinfection
    • Inflammation of the eyes, joints, muscles, lungs, or skin (not common)

If you are infected with HTLV-I or HTLV-II, you may also develop a disorder of the nervous system known as HTLV associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP). It can cause weakness, numbness and stiffness in the legs, and difficulty walking.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

HTLV infection can only be diagnosed with a specific blood test. The presence of HTLV antibodies is a sign of infection with the virus.

Treatment

There is no treatment that can remove the virus from the body. Treatment is aimed at managing HTLV-associated diseases and reducing their symptoms.

To prevent spreading HTLV to others:

  • Do not donate plasma, bone marrow, organs, semen, or breast milk.
  • Do not breastfeed your baby.
  • Avoid unprotected sex.
  • Avoid sharing needles or syringes.

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting the virus:

  • Avoid unprotected sex. If your partner has the virus discuss ways to prevent the spread of the virus with your doctor.
  • Avoid sharing needles or syringes.