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Link between HIV and cancer

Opinion & Analysis
HIV ribbon

WORLDWIDE, about 35 million people are living with HIV and Aids. More than half of these live in sub-Saharan Africa. About half are women.

However, mortality rates in Zimbabwe attributed to the HIV and Aids epidemic continue to decline along with diagnosed infections.

As of 2018, UNAids reported that there had been a 60% decrease in Aids-related deaths since 2010, along with a 24 000 decrease in new HIV infections.

The prevalence of HIV among adults was 12,9% which corresponds to approximately 1,23 million adults in Zimbabwe living with HIV in 2020.

Statistics show that 60% of cancer patients are HIV positive. As we join the world in commemorating World Aids Day under the theme Equalise, at Talk Cancer Zim, we take a closer look at the relationship between cancer and HIV.

Why do people with HIV seem to get cancer more often than people without HIV?

HIV plays a role in how cancer grows in HIV-positive individuals. HIV attacks the immune system, which protects the body from infections and diseases.

A weaker immune system is less likely to fight off diseases ,like cancer — people with HIV often have a weakened immune system ,which can make them more prone to getting cancer.

Below are some reasons cancer can be common among people with HIV.

People with HIV live longer

HIV medications are helping people with HIV live longer, healthier lives, but their immune systems do not get fully healthy.

As they live longer, their chances of having other health problems like cancer increases.

HIV and other viruses work together

Having HIV and a weakened immune system makes it easier for other viruses to attack your body.

HIV and other viruses work together in helping cancer cells grow.

Some of these viruses are hepatitis B and C, herpes, human papilloma virus (HPV), and Epstein barr virus.

The link between HIV and these cancers is still not fully understood. Some cancers are 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 living with HIV because of their weak immune systems.

An example, anal cancer and some mouth and throat cancers are linked to HPV and the same virus causes cervical cancer.

Liver cancer is common in people infected with the hepatitis B or C viruses. Some types of lymphoma are 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 cancers occur so often in people with Aids that they are considered Aids-defining conditions — kaposi sarcoma, cervical cancer and Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

The reasons for the increased risk aren’t clear.

It may be that some of these cancers develop and grow more quickly because of a weakened immune system.

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.

Treatment of cancer in people with HIV

The use of anti-HIV drugs has 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.

As people with HIV are now living longer, they develop 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 find it early?

Certain cancers are more common in people with HIV, but even among different people without HIV.

The risk of developing 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 them to stay on their medicines to help keep the infection under control.

The risk of some of types of cancers 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 using safer sex practices 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 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.

Let’s all join hands in the continuing fight against HIV and Aids.

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