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Cancer and HIV link

Michelle C Madzudzo

About 35 million people are living with HIV/Aids in the world. More than half of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa. About half are women.

Mortality rates in Zimbabwe attributed to the HIV/Aids epidemic continue to decline along with diagnosed infections, as of 2018, UNAid reported that there had been a 60% decrease in Aids-related deaths since 2010, along with a 24 000 person decrease in new HIV infections.

The prevalence of HIV among adults was 12,9% which translates to approximately 1,23 million adults in Zimbabwe living with HIV in 2020. Statistics have also shown that 60% of cancer patients are HIV positive. Why do people with HIV seem to get cancer more often than people without HIV? HIV itself plays a role in how cancer grows in people who are HIV positive.

HIV attacks the immune system, which protects the body from infections and diseases. A weaker immune system is less able to fight off diseases. People with HIV often have a weakened immune system, which can make them more prone to getting cancer. Below are some reasons why cancer seems to be more common among people with HIV:

People with HIV are living longer

HIV medications are helping people with HIV to live longer, but their immune systems do not get fully healthy. As people with HIV live longer, their chances of having other health problems, like cancer, increase, such as breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer.

HIV and other viruses work together

Having HIV and a weakened immune system make it easier for other viruses to stay alive in the body. HIV and these other viruses work together to help cancer cells start growing, some of these viruses are hepatitis B and C, herpes, human papilloma virus, epstein barr virus.

The link between HIV and these cancers is still not fully understood. Some of these cancers have been linked to infections with different viruses.

These viruses can cause cancer in people with and without HIV, but the risk might be higher in people with HIV because their immune systems are less able to control the viral growth.

For example, anal cancer and some mouth and throat cancers are linked to infection with HPV, the same virus that causes cervical cancer. Liver cancer is known to be more common in people infected with the hepatitis B or C viruses. Some types of lymphoma have been linked with viral infections as well.

What kind of cancers do people with HIV get?

People with HIV infection or Aids can get cancer just like anyone else. They are actually more likely to get some types of cancer than people who are not infected.

In fact, some types of cancer occur so often in people with Aids that they are considered Aids-defining conditions — these are kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer and non-hodgkins lymphoma.

Some cancers are also more common in people with HIV or Aids  than people who are not infected, but the reasons for the increased risk are not clear.

It may be that some of these cancers are able to develop and grow more quickly because of a weakened immune system brought on by the infection itself.

In other cases, it may be because people with HIV infection or Aids are more likely to have certain other risk factors for cancer, such as being smokers, alcoholics, unhealthy eaters. These cancers include head and neck, anal, lung, testicle, skin, liver as well as hodgkins lymphoma.

 Treatment of cancer in people with HIV

The use of anti-HIV drugs has also led to better cancer survival rates for people with HIV, as many people are now able to get full doses of chemotherapy and other standard cancer treatments, which may not have been possible in the past.

Of course, as people with HIV are now living longer, they are also developing other cancers that are not clearly linked to HIV but are more common in older people.

What can people with HIV or Aids do to try to lower their risk of cancer or detect it early?

Certain cancers are more common in people with HIV, but even among different people with HIV, the risk of developing many types of cancer is higher if the infection is not well controlled — that is, if the CD4 (helper-T cell) count is low. This is one reason why it is important for people with HIV to stay on their medicines to help keep the infection under control.

The risk of some of types of cancer that are more common in people with HIV may be lowered by avoiding certain cancer risk factors.

For example, not smoking or using injection drugs and avoiding or limiting alcohol, maintaining a healthy diet and weight and exercising may help lower the risk of some cancers.

Some types of cancer linked with HIV and Aids are caused by viruses that can be spread through sex, so safe sex may also help protect against those cancers. Vaccines against the hepatitis B virus may help protect against one possible cause of liver cancer.

Vaccines are also available to help protect against certain human papillomavirus (HPV) infections, which may help prevent some cervical, anal, and other cancers.

But the HPV vaccines are only effective if they are given before a person becomes infected with HPV, so they are recommended before a person becomes sexually active.

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