Multiple infections and cancer: implications in epidemiology

Technol Cancer Res Treat. 2014 Apr;13(2):177-94. doi: 10.7785/tcrt.2012.500366. Epub 2013 Aug 2.


Approximately 18% of the global cancer burden has been attributed to infectious agents, with estimates ranging from 7% in developed countries to about 22% in developing countries. Chronic infections caused by the hepatitis B and C viruses, human papilloma viruses (HPV), and Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) are reported to be responsible for approximately 15% of all human cancers. Interestingly, although many of the infectious agents that have been associated with cancer--such as HPV, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), and H. pylori--are highly prevalent in the world, most infected individuals do not develop cancer but remain lifelong carriers. Malignancies associated with infectious agents may result from prolonged latency as a result of chronic infections. Pathogenic infections are necessary but are not sufficient for cancer initiation or progression. Cancer initiation may require additional cofactors, including secondary infections. Therefore, in patients with chronic infection with one agent, secondary co-infection with another agent may serve as an important co-factor that may cause cancer initiation and progression. Additionally, opportunistic co-infections could significantly inhibit response to cancer treatment and increase cancer mortality. Co-infections are relatively common in areas with a high prevalence of infectious agents, especially in developing countries. These co-infections can cause an imbalance in the host immune system by affecting persistence of and susceptibility to malignant infections. Several articles have been published that focus on infectious agents and cancer. In this article, we discuss the role of infectious agents in malignancies, highlight the role of multiple/co-infections in cancer etiology, and review implications for cancer epidemiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Coinfection
  • Humans
  • Infections / complications*
  • Infections / microbiology
  • Infections / virology
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Neoplasms / etiology*