Blood-shedding religious rituals, which involve participants flogging or whipping themselves, may lead to a potentially deadly infection. Researchers reported this finding in a study published in CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases on March 13.
Researchers have reported the case of 10 UK men who contracted a little-known virus called human T-cell leukemia virus type 1.
HTLV-1 is transmitted through sex, blood transfusion, breastfeeding, and sharing of needles, so doctors were initially puzzled at how the patients contracted the infection because they did not engage in any of these acts.
They later learned the men participated in blood-shedding religious rituals practiced in Iraq, India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.
“There have been suggestions that you might spread infections through this route, but it has never been described before” said Divya Dhasmana of St. Mary’s Hospital in London
Individuals who contract HTLV-1 generally do not develop signs of symptoms of the disease. None of the men show symptoms, but they were diagnosed through tests given prior to blood donations or in-vitro fertilization procedures.
The mystery to how they were infected was solved after Dhasmana noticed scars on the back of one of the patients. Further investigations revealed all 10 men participated in religious self-flagellation.
These forms of ritual are practiced by different religious groups, but they are controversial even within the religious communities.
The rituals involve striking the forehead with a knife, which is then passed along to other men. The rituals may also involve striking the back with bladed implements.
One patient said the blades that were passed around where soaked in an over-the-counter antiseptic solution, but Dhasmana said this is not enough to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We describe 10 cases of HTLV-1 infection in men in whom the practice of self-flagellation was the only identifiable risk factor. In 1 patient, co-infection with HCV was also found,” Dhasmana and colleagues wrote.
Most of those infected with HTLV-1 may not exhibit symptoms, but some may develop serious and even potentially deadly illnesses.
Between 2 to 5 percent of people with HTLV-1 develop adult T-cell leukemia (ATL), a rare cancer of the immune system’s T-cells. About .25 to 2 percent of individuals with HTLV-1 also develop HTLV-1 associated myelopathy/tropical spastic paraparesis (HAM/TSP), a chronic and progressive disease of the nervous system.