Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The latest estimates show that in 2017, there were nearly 17 million new cases and over 9 million deaths worldwide. Cancer is a complex and multifactorial disease and strategies to reduce its burden requires not only basic research, but also a global action plan targeting early detection, control and prevention. One fundamental aspect of prevention is to understand the causes of cancer. A new study published this week in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Open) by researchers at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) and the University of Washington, Seattle, report that more than 250,000 cases of cancer are caused by a common virus called as Epstein Barr virus (EBV).
“More than 90% of the people worldwide are infected with EBV and fortunately, never develop any disease,” said Gulfaraz Khan, PhD, FRCPath, professor of viral pathology at the College of Medicine and Health Sciences, UAEU. “In a small percentage of people however, this common virus can cause diseases ranging from cancer to autoimmune diseases,” added Dr Khan, who has been studying this virus and its associated diseases for more than two decades. In this latest study, Khan teamed up with Dr Luai Ahmed from the Institute of Public Health, UAEU and Dr Christina Fitzmaurice and Dr Mohsen Naghavi from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, to estimate the global burden of cancers linked to EBV. “This is the first study of its kind to quantitate the global and regional incidence, mortality and disability-adjusted life-years of EBV-attributed malignancies by age, sex, geographical region and social demographic index,” said Christina Fitzmaurice, MD, PhD. The study revealed that stomach cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer accounted for more than 80% of all the EBV-associated cancers, and both of these cancers were most prevalent in East Asia. “Worryingly, EBV-linked cancers are on rise and with increasing global population and life expectancy, this burden is likely to further increase in the future,” added Luai Ahmed, MD, PhD.
“More than a quarter of a million cases of cancer caused by this virus is staggering,” said Khan. “In reality, this figure is likely to be much higher, since the virus is known to be causally linked to a number of other malignancies which were not included in this analysis. These cancers could be prevented by vaccination, but unfortunately, we do not currently have such a vaccine,” remarked Khan.
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