Lima: A recent study revealed that as many as 20 million people may be carrying a deadly virus called HTLV-1 or Human T-Lymphotropic Virus, Type 1 and may show no symptoms at all. What's worse is that doctors may be mistaking it for HIV.
Doctors say it's possible to be infected for years with the virus without even knowing what it is.
Cynthia Okada began to have trouble walking when she was 13-years-old and doctors could not find the reason behind her ailment.
Cynthia said, "My feet were clumsy and sometimes I would fall for no reason, the children would make fun of me a lot."
There is no effective treatment for Cynthia's condition, or any treatment that can stop the progression of the disease. She gradually lost the use of her legs and has barely left the house in 10 years.
"I sometimes think that I'm in a dream and that I will wake up. But It's very realistic. I see my life as it is, with my illness. What I would like to have is work, to be able to sustain myself economically, to be able to cover my own needs without having to ask anything from anybody," Cynthia added.
Doctors say Cynthia most likely became infected with HTLV-1 as a baby, breast fed by her mother, who was unaware of her own infection. At the time, her mother had no symptoms. But now, she, too, is crippled, and confined to their home.
"Oh, I would love to get a little better. To be able to walk around some, to help in my house! To help my children, with everything. But I can't. I can't. I don't know what will become of my life," said Cynthia's mother.
However, it's much more common for the virus to be transmitted through blood transfusions, shared needles and sexual contact, doctors say. That leads some people, even doctors, to confuse HTLV-1 with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
HTLV-1 patients say they suffer the same kind discrimination long endured by people who test positive for HIV.
Doctor Eduardo Gotuzzo the Director of the Institute for Tropical Medicine in Lima, has studied HTLV-1 for 20 years. He says, in addition to problems with the legs, the HTLV-1 virus can also lead to certain types of cancer.
For more information on global health frontline news, visit www.ghfn.org