Chronic Illness & Cancer
In the United States, 70 percent of all deaths are due to chronic diseases. Until recently their biological causes were mostly unknown. Today, growing evidence suggests that infections are behind many chronic diseases once thought to be caused by genetic, environmental, or lifestyle factors.
For scientists there are tantalizing clues that a seemingly chronic disease may be infectious.
The human papillomavirus (HPV)
, for instance, causes more than 90 percent of cervical cancer cases. The hepatitis B
virus accounts for more than 60 percent of liver cancer cases. The hepatitis C
virus causes cirrhosis
, end-stage liver disease, and liver cancer. Human herpesvirus 8 causes Kaposi’s sarcoma, a malignant complication of AIDS. Helicobacter pylori,
a spiral-shaped bacterium, is the agent of peptic ulcers
and gastric cancer. These examples may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Clues to Infection
For scientists there are tantalizing clues that a seemingly chronic disease may be infectious. When an illness arises mostly in people whose immune systems
are weak, it suggests infection (such as in Kaposi’s sarcoma following organ transplants). When a disease gets better with antibiotics
(as does strep-induced rheumatic fever), it’s likely to be infectious. Another sign of possible infection is chronic inflammation
, which is a common denominator in such diseases as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and other autoimmune diseases
. It remains to be proven that any of these diseases have infectious origins, though the possibility certainly exists.
The traditional standards for establishing a microbial cause of disease were developed in the 19th century for acute infections such as tuberculosis and anthrax. When it comes to tracking down an infectious source of chronic disease, however, traditional standards may prove to be too restrictive. Sometimes the suspect bacteria or viruses are difficult to detect or grow in the lab. Or there may be long delays between infection and disease, so that by the time symptoms appear, the agents that caused the original infection may be gone. Some psychiatric illnesses, such as schizophrenia
, may have been triggered by infections that occurred just before or after birth. Studies are in progress to address this possibility.
New Treatment Approaches
Proof that certain infections cause chronic diseases raises the promise of treatment with antibiotics or vaccines
. The discovery that infection with H. pylori
was associated with peptic ulcers is a well-known example. Doctors used to assume that stress and spicy foods caused ulcers—and recommended bland diets. Today they simply cure the condition by prescribing a pair of antibiotics.
Another advance in prevention is the hepatitis B vaccine. Liver cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world and the most common cancer in some parts of Asia. With the hepatitis B vaccine now included in universal childhood immunization
programs, new cases of this cancer are expected to drop.