HIV and cancer

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People with an HIV infection are more likely to develop some types of cancer. Anti-retroviral therapy can help keep an HIV infection 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 unsterilised needles, razors or toothbrushes, or through unprotected sex. The virus is most commonly spread through sexual contact. HIV infects a type of cell called ‘T-cells’, which form part of our immune system – the body’s defence against disease.

HIV can lead to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). 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 severely damaged by the HIV virus. AIDS can't be transmitted from one person to another but the HIV virus can.

Once someone is infected with HIV, they are infected for life. More than 100,000 people in the UK live with HIV.

What cancers are linked to HIV?

HIV can cause Kaposi Sarcoma, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, and one type of eye cancer.  It can also play a role in a number of other cancers. These include Hodgkin Lymphoma, cervical cancer and anal cancer.

Only 1 in 1000 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 virtually 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.

How can HIV cause cancer?

HIV infects and kills T-cells. T-cells are part of our immune system. They can usually destroy cells infected with cancer-causing viruses. This immune response can help to clear the infection before cancer can develop.

People with HIV have fewer T cells, so they can’t fight infections as easily. Viruses like Kaposi’s Sarcoma Herpes Virus (KSHV), Human herpesvirus-8 (HHV-8), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and Human papillomavirus (HPV) can then cause cells to grow and divide out of control. This can lead to cancer.

Reducing the Risk

The best way to avoid HIV-linked cancers is to avoid infection with the virus altogether. In the UK, the most common way to catch HIV is through unprotected sexual contact, so using a condom or another barrier method of protection during sex is important.

There is also emergency medication for people who may have been exposed to the virus very recently. This has to be given 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 reduces the chances of developing cancer. Since anti-retroviral therapy (ART) became available to control HIV, cases of cancers linked to HIV have gone down.

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