Does HIV cause cancer?

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  • People with HIV are more likely to develop some types of cancer
  • HIV is a virus that affects the immune system, so the body is less able to get rid of other infections that can cause cancer
  • Anti-retroviral therapy can help keep HIV under control and reduce the risk of developing cancer

What is HIV?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can be spread through blood-to-blood contact. For example by sharing needles that are not clean, razors or toothbrushes, or through unprotected sex, with another person that has HIV. The virus is most often spread through sexual contact.

HIV can lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Not everyone with HIV goes on to develop AIDS, but everyone who has AIDS has HIV. This is what happens when your immune system has been very damaged by the HIV virus. You can’t catch AIDS from another person, but the HIV virus can spread from one person to another.

Once someone gets HIV, they have the infection for life. More than 100,000 people in the UK live with HIV, but rates of new infections have lowered.

 

How can HIV cause cancer?

HIV infects and kills T-cells. T-cells are part of our immune system that usually helps to get rid of infections, including cancer-causing viruses.

In people without HIV, their immune response can help to clear the virus before cancer can develop.

But, people with HIV have fewer T cells, so they can’t fight infections as easily. Cancer-causing viruses like Kaposi’s sarcoma herpes virus (KSHV), Human herpesvirus-8 (HHV-8), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and Human papillomavirus (HPV) can then stick around for a long time, and cause cells to grow and divide out of control. This can lead to cancer.

 

What cancers are linked to HIV?

People with HIV may not be able to get rid of other viruses that can cause cancer, so they are more likely to get several different cancer types. They include Kaposi sarcoma, lymphomas (blood cancers), eye cancer, cervical and anal cancers.

Only 1 in 1,000 cases of cancer in the UK are caused by HIV. This is partly because eye cancer and Kaposi sarcoma are very rare cancers in the UK. But almost all cases of Kaposi sarcoma occur in people who have HIV.

People with HIV who develop AIDS are at higher risk of cancer than those who do not.

The best way to avoid HIV-linked cancers is to avoid HIV infection altogether. In the UK, the most common way to catch HIV is through unprotected sexual contact. Using a condom or another barrier method of protection during sex can help reduce your risk.

There is emergency medication for people who may have come into contact with the virus very recently. This must be taken within 3 days of exposure and is not always effective.

There is no cure for HIV. But if you are infected, anti-retroviral therapy (ART) can help keep HIV infection under control. It reduces the effects of the infection and the chances of developing cancer. Since ART became available to control HIV, cases of cancers linked to HIV have gone down.

Parkin DM. Cancers attributable to infection in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer.105 Suppl(S2):S49-56 (2011).

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Biological Agents. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans 100B (2012).

National Health Service (NHS). HIV and AIDS. www.nhs.uk/conditions/hiv-and-aids/ [Accessed May 2019].

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Find out more about HIV on the NHS website

 

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