Q: What exactly are retroviruses? My wife has developed some numbness and tingling in her lower legs that make it painful and difficult for her to walk.
Her doctor thinks it might be due to a retrovirus. Is there a cure?
A: The retrovirus that everyone has heard of is HIV, which can lead to AIDS. I don’t think your doctor is referring to HIV or he would have said that.
There are two other well recognized retroviruses called HTLV-1 and HTLV-II, Human T-lymphocytic virus.
Retroviruses are a family of viruses that are classified based on the way they are structured and how they replicate within a host cell.
In the case of HTLV I or II, the preferred host cells are the T-lymphocytes that are found mainly in the blood and are responsible for keeping the body’s immune system in good order.
Both of these viruses are transmitted between people in a similar way to HIV.
Those include sexual contact, shared needles, blood transfusions, infected blood or tissue exposure or during pregnancy or childbirth from an infected mother to her child.
Retroviruses were first discovered in 1979 and now we know that 4 HTLVs are becoming well established in our population.
Types I and II affect 15-20 million people worldwide. In the U.S, the prevalence is 22 cases per 100,000 population.
However the virus appears to be on a gradual decline since the 1990s.
HTLV-1 is the more clinically significant of the two because it has been shown to be contributing factor to multiple disorders. HTLV-I is the most serious because a significant number of sufferers will eventually develop a type of leukemia that is rapidly fatal.
Others may develop a debilitating inflammation of the spinal cord known as a myelopathy. They may get skin conditions such as dermatitis and eye inflammations called uveitis or other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
Individuals infected with HTLV-1 are at risk for opportunistic infections, diseases not caused by the virus itself but by alterations in the patients’ immune system.
HTLV-II is associated with milder neurological symptoms disorders and possibly chronic lung infections.
The more recently discovered HTLV-3 and HTLV-4 have only been isolated in a few cases. No specific illnesses have yet been associated with these viruses.
If your wife does have a retrovirus, she hopefully has the milder HTLV-II type.
However, there are many other possible causes of your wife’s symptoms ranging from peripheral neuropathy often seen in diabetics to a pinched nerve in the spine. She might also have poor circulation in her lower legs. Most of these conditions are treatable.
If she does have a retrovirus, the treatment in usually with immunosuppressants like prednisone or anti-inflammatory medications.
It is the opposite of HIV-AIDS where the immune system is under-active. The immune cells become overactive and can attack the host’s own body.
Retroviruses have been touted as being the possible reason behind many diseases that are difficult to diagnose or treat, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or even multiple sclerosis, but this has not yet been proven.
It is certainly a fashionable explanation for almost everything these days that doctors have trouble understanding.