Africa has a particularly high rate of cancers caused by infection. That’s the bad news. The good news is, they are – in theory – preventable using vaccines.
More than half a century ago, an Irish physician named Denis Burkitt moved to Uganda and opened a medical clinic.
He was quickly struck by the large number of children with facial swellings that often grew large enough to choke and kill. It was a type of cancer he had never seen back home.
The cancer came to be called Burkitt’s lymphoma.
Today, on the paediatric ward at the Uganda Cancer Institute, the beds are filled with children with Burkitt’s. It’s the most common childhood cancer in central Africa, and it starts with an infection.
“It’s associated with a virus called Epstein-Barr,” says Dr Abrahams Omoding, an oncologist at the institute.
Epstein-Barr, which causes mononucleosis or glandular fever, also appears to trigger Burkitt’s lymphoma. Malaria may also play a role.
Omoding says many people think cancers are caused either by bad habits, eating the wrong things or being exposed to radiation or chemicals.
But he points out that many infections can also lead to cancer, for example:
The bacteria called H. pylori, causes ulcers, and can sometimes lead to stomach cancer
The parasite responsible for the tropical disease schistosomiasis can trigger bladder cancer
Cervical cancer is caused by human papilloma virus (HPV)
Liver cancer is associated with the Hepatitis B virus
Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancerous tumour of the connective tissue, is caused by a virus that attacks people with weak immune systems
In Uganda, where many people are HIV-positive, Kaposi’s sarcoma is of epidemic proportions.
“The list is long,” says Omoding. “These are the most common cancers that we see, and all of them are actually virus-related.”