Medical researchers at a leading Australian university recently uncovered an alarming link between a common virus and the quadrupling of a string of deadly cancers in China.
The deadly Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) increases the risk of oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) in China by almost four- fold, according to research led by University of New South Wales ( UNSW) academics.
In addition to causing cervical, anal and genital cancers, HPV has more recently been found to cause head and neck cancers. OSCC is a cancer where a possible link with HPV has been postulated in the past, but not resolved.
"The problem with OSCC is that there is no way to screen for it, so it is usually diagnosed quite late and has a very high mortality," said the first author of the paper, Surabhi Liyanage, a PhD candidate with UNSW Medicine.
OSCC is the most common of two types of oesophageal cancer. While it is rare in Australia, it is the sixth highest cause of cancer-related deaths world-wide, and the fourth leading cause of cancer death in China.
It is particularly prevalent in China, South Africa and Iran among men in their mid-70s to 80s. Why the prevalence is so high in those countries remains a mystery, but it is thought to be linked to dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors.
"This is an important new finding of public health importance to China, as OSCC causes a large burden of cancer deaths in China. If even a proportion of these cancers can be prevented by HPV vaccination, the population benefit could be significant," Professor Raina MacIntyre from UNSW told Xinhua.
"The link between infections and cancer has been long recognised, with hepatitis B vaccination being the first cancer- preventing vaccine. Decades of infant vaccination against hepatitis B, for example, has led to dramatic reductions in hepatocellular-carcinoma, which is a highly lethal cancer caused by the hepatitis B vaccine."
"A similar hope is held for HPV vaccine in preventing HPV- related cancers," Professor MacIntyre added.
"Time will tell whether our universal HPV vaccination program has any additional benefit in prevention of cancers other than cervical cancer," said Professor MacIntyre.
"Given that the most common two cervical cancer-causing HPVs are now preventable by early vaccination, this may be significant in countries where OSCC is frequently found," said Professor MacIntyre, head of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
"In China, it is one of the leading causes of cancer death, so Chinese health authorities could consider this in any deliberations they are having about potential benefits of HPV vaccination in their population over and above the target of cervical cancer prevention," she said.
Currently, HPV vaccinations are used most commonly in young people in developed countries to prevent cervical cancer.