In the new issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, scientists and doctors from the Imperial College of London and St. Mary's Hospital document a small outbreak of Human T-Cell Lymphotropic Virus Type-1 (HTLV-1).
The doctors were initially quite confused when 10 men in the United Kingdom were all infected with this virus. The men did not use drugs, they had never received a blood transfusion, and they could not identify any other risk factors.
While examining one of the patients, doctors discovered strange scars on the back of one of the patients. That turned out to be the key to the likely source of the outbreak.
The men were all Muslims, and they had all taken part in a bloody self-flagellation ritual.
Some Shiite Muslims (like some members of Catholic denominations) engage in self-flagellation with blades on lengths of chain, rods, or whips. Muslims who practice it usually do so while celebrating Ashura.
All of the infected men appeared to have contracted the virus separately through participation in this practice. One of the men involved said that the shared blades were soaked in a bucket of antiseptic solution between uses. This was insufficient, however, and the virus was able to spread.
Self-flagellation is not that common among Muslims, however there are some members of the religion in India, Iraq, Pakistan, the United States, and elsewhere that practice it.
The authors of the study noted that transmission of the virus usually occurs through sexual activity, sharing of contaminated products that come into contact with blood, organ transplantation, or infants infected by their mothers.
They go on to write that less than 10% of those infected develop symptoms. In about 2 - 6% of those infected, T-cell leukemia/lymphoma develops, a type of cancer of the white blood cells.
The authors of the study wrote that their intent was to propose self-flagellation be included in lists of risk factors that result in blood-borne viruses, including HTLV-1. They hope that blood transfusion providers will screen for the practice among donors, and that this is especially important in areas where it is known that many people engage in the practice.
One of the authors of the study, Dr. Divya Dhasmana of St. Mary’s Hospital, said to the press: "Our message is not ‘Don’t do it.’ Our message is ‘If you do it, don’t share equipment.'"
Right, because telling people that they should avoid carving themselves up because of their archaic religious beliefs would be politically incorrect.
The myriad ways that religion can cause harm to people, or cause them to harm themselves, even now in the 21st century, is as remarkable as it is tragic.