An outbreak of a little-known virus had researchers puzzled recently until they worked out the small group of men involved had one thing in common: self-flagellation. Now, others are being warned against certain aspects of the religious practice to help curb more cases of the rare infection.
According to the New York Post, 10 British men became infected with a rare infection after they were involved in shared self-flagellation events. Self-flagellation is a religious practice that sees people whipping or cutting themselves, often as a form of religious discipline or as a religious ritual within their belief system. It can also occur as part of a group practice.
Self-flagellation is a religious ritual that is considered controversial by many religious people and it is a procedure that is normally only performed by men.
However, for those who do perform the ritual, it was this group practice that has led to the spread of the rare condition.
Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1, also known as HTLV-1, is a human retrovirus that can have some serious developments such as blood cancer and nervous system conditions. Most of the time, however, people remain unaffected by the condition. So far, the newly identified infected men have shown no symptoms of the rare condition.
As the New York Post points out, HTLV-1 is usually spread through “breastfeeding, sex, blood transfusion, and sharing of needles.” However, in this instance, none of the men had been involved in any of the normal risk activities. It wasn’t until one man was noticed to have scarring on his back that researchers were led to identify self-flagellation as the cause of the infection.
It is believed that these men were involved in self-flagellation events that occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, India, and the United Kingdom.
According to Dr. Divya Dhasmana of St. Mary’s Hospital in London, there have been previous suggestions that self-flagellation could spread HTLV-1 but no definitive links had been made.
“There have been suggestions that you might spread infections through this route, but it has never been described before,” Dr. Dhasmana said.
The infection was identified in the individuals after “tests that usually precede blood donations or in vitro fertilization procedures” were performed. The cases were then referred onto St. Mary’s Hospital where researchers became involved.
A report on their finding has since been published in a journal via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It was identified that the self-flagellation ritual involved sharing a knife which was used to cut the religious men’s foreheads and then passed along to others involved in the ritual. At the time, the knife was disinfected between each person using a bucket filled with over-the-counter antiseptic. However, it is known that this is not a reliable way to prevent the spread of HTLV-1, according to Dhasmana.
Dhasmana is now issuing the following warning to those who wish to continue the practice.
“Our message is not ‘Don’t do it.’ Our message is ‘If you do it, don’t share equipment.’”