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1 in 6 Cancer Cases Caused by Infections

Preventable infections cause 2 million new cancer cases a year worldwide.

Worldwide, infectious agents like hepatitis B virus caused one in six new cancer cases in 2008, according to new estimates. Thirty percent of those cases occurred in people under the age of 50.

Of the 12.7 million new cases of cancer, two million were related to potentially preventable infections caused by viruses, bacteria and parasites. The bulk of these—1.9 million cases—were attributed to human papillomaviruses (HPV), Helicobacter pylori, and hepatitis B (HBV) and C viruses (HCV). These infections can cause gastric, liver, and cervical cancers.

Researchers developed these estimates, published in Lancet Oncology, by examining data for 27 cancers in 184 countries. The results show that developing countries are hit harder by infection-related cancers—22.9 percent of their cancer cases were caused by infections, compared to 7.4 percent in developed countries.

Men and women were also affected differently. Half of the infection-related cancers in women were cervical, while 80 percent of cancers related to infections in men were liver or gastric.

The United Nations highlights the need to prevent and control non-infectious diseases like cancer and obesity. This study, however, shows that programs developed to target cancer should also focus on preventing and treating infections.

Vaccines already exist for HPV and HBV. Use of these low-cost treatments should be a priority, especially in developing countries that are greatly affected.

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