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The Relationship Between Epstein-Barr Virus and Cancer

Updated on June 28, 2017


Epstein-Barr virus also identified as herpesvirus 4 is one of the most prevalent human viruses, which is categorized under the herpes family. Many people get affected by the virus sometimes in their lives. The virus which causes infectious mononucleosis and other illnesses normally spreads through primary saliva, and bodily fluids. The virus can also spread through food and kissing, thus the reason why it is commonly referred as the kissing disease. A number of studies have related the Epstein-Barr virus with carcinogenesis, the EBV-related tumors and many types of cancer among the victims. This paper evaluates the relationship between EBV with cancer.


The relationship between EBV and cancer was first discovered by Burkit Denis, a surgeon who was working with wounded soldiers during world war 11. He had stayed for quite some time in Africa and particularly in Uganda where he served as a medical practitioner. In 1958, the practitioner while in his duties reported a unique form of cancer that affected only children in central Africa. The tumors which were subsequently named after him Burkitt’s lymphoma were as a result of the uncontrolled multiplication of the white blood cells in the body. These victims were diagnosed with either swellings around the face and other dental problems. Burkit together with other practitioners noted that the tumors were growing at a rapid pace and were unresponsive to any form of treatment at that time (Burkitt, 1958).

Further research by the practitioner went on to note that this type of cancer affected children who were living in a specific geographical area, particularly in rainy regions. The link to environmental factors resulted into Burkitt and other practitioners to perceive that the transmission of lymphoma was done by a virus that was insect-bone. However, they did not adduce any evidence to explain this phenomenon. However, more scientists joined in to study this phenomenon using powerful tools. Burkitt and his team finally discovered using various samples and tumors that caused cancer in children. Samples carried from Burkitt’s children were found to be positive in EBV infection. The researchers went on to note that the infection of EBV had a strong link to cancer. Ever since Burkitt’s discovery on the connection between EBV and lymphoma was made, the evidence to support this relationship has been growing on a consistent basis. Those people who are more vulnerable to EBV include those with weak immune system and patients with AIDS (Burkitt, 1958).

Epstein Barr virus is also among the first cancer viruses which have been attributed to the development of different types of lymphoproliferative conditions. These include NK/T-cell, Hodgkin and plasmablastic lymphoma, and primary CNS. Researchers have also been able to find EBV expression among patients have a diffusion of large B-cell type of lymphoma (Lymphomation, 2012).

According to UK Cancer Research (2014), EBV causes more than 200000 types of cancers across the globe. Among these lists are stomach cancers, nasopharyngeal cancers, and the more common lymphomas. Despite EBV causing different types of cancer and affecting people of all age groups, there are those who cannot be vulnerable to the virus. For instance, these cancers are more common in some parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia regions have been identified with the type of cancers that mainly affect the nasopharynx while regions such as the Sub-Saharan Africa have been related with lymphoma associated with EBV. This implies that the vulnerability of this condition is increased when other factors come into play. These factors as already identified include a weak immunity and environmental factors. In addition, there is including exposure to other diseases, genetics and type of diet one is exposed to.

The EBV virus can affect an individual’s bone and blood marrow. It can make the body to produce uncontrollable number of white blood cells in a process known as lymphocytosis. The excess white blood cells are identified as lymphocytes. Other effects to the body are weakening of the immune system, making the body unable to fight infection (Robertson, 2010).

A study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine has further successfully implicated the EBV as being associated with mononucleosis. This is particularly in cases involving the Hodgkin's disease. The researchers employed a medical data base that was comprehensive in nature performed a comparison of 17,000 individuals who had developed mononucleosis that were as a result of EBV virus with 24,000 who despite having mono, had no evidence of EBV. Findings from this study revealed the prevalence of higher risk for Hodgkin’s disease for individuals who tested positive for monocleosis as a result of EBV. On the contrary, individuals who did have monocleosis but were negative on EBV were found to have no risk for Hodgkin’s disease. The conclusion drawn by the authors of this study were that the prevalence of EBV significantly increased the risk of acquiring the Hodgkin’s disease. On other hand, mono-like diseases which were caused by viruses other than EBV were not related with Hodgkins (Ambinder, 2003). Hodgkins disease is one form of cancer, lymphoma which affects the white blood cells.

EBV works by producing molecules which subsequently makes infected cells to become overdrive and making them to keep multiplying without control. Additionally, the virus consists of DNA which is double stranded and divides itself when in the white blood cells as well as cells lining the nose, tongue and mouth. Though the immune system of human being has capability of effectively containing the virus, it may not eliminate it to its entirety. Few of these viruses persists inform of lymphocytes throughout a person’s life. After some time, the virus begins multiplying themselves and when other factors come into play, it may lead to cancerous effect (Erle, 2005).


Based on this analysis, it is apparent that EBV is significantly related to cancer. In fact, it is considered to be the first virus to be causing cancer among human beings. What triggers more interest in these insights is the geographic spread of these type of cancers and why its spread is mainly in the developing world. Since there has been a successful history of treating viruses, it becomes important to develop vaccines that can effectively prevent people from being infected with the virus. Moreover, researchers should also develop medications and treatments to deal with the virus as has been done with other type of viruses. The key focus at the moment is to develop vaccines and encourage people to be vaccinated against the condition.


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