Can H. pylori trigger cancer? Since H. pylori is so common and stomach cancer rare it’s not a major cause.
The Many Different Faces of Infection
For centuries infection has been a major killer. Then several years ago it appeared that antibiotics had largely eradicated this menace. But unexpectedly the AIDS virus struck with a vengeance. Now scientists are linking infection to peptic ulcers, heart attack and cancer. So how can you protect yourself and your family from these serious illnesses?
In 1984 an Australian physician, Barry Marshall, decided to prove that his theory of infection was right. He drank a bacteria laced concoction to show that it was bacteria, not stress, that caused peptic ulcers. Subsequent studies confirmed that most ulcers are infected with a bacterium called H. pylori.
But here’s a problem. About half the people over 60 years of age have H. pylori in their stomachs. But only about 5 to 20 percent suffer from ulcers. In fact, it’s believed that H. pylori may even decrease stomach acid and help to ease heartburn in some cases. It’s obvious that treating everyone who has H. pylori is not a prudent move.
We also know that there are other causes of ulcers. Patients who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen sodium (Aleve) and Aspirin cause about 25 percent of ulcer cases.
So what do doctors do? Patients with ulcer symptoms such as pain that is eased by eating, and recurs several hours later, or during the night, should be tested for H. pylori.
Some doctors, however, routinely use endoscopy in which a lighted instrument is inserted down the throat to examine the stomach and upper part of the small bowel. If an ulcer is present, a combination of antibiotics is prescribed to eliminate H. pylori.
Can H. pylori trigger cancer? Since H. pylori is so common and stomach cancer rare it’s not a major cause. But researchers believe that, by causing chronic irritation to the stomach’s lining, it may on occasion trigger malignancy. It therefore makes sense that patients with a family history of stomach cancer should be tested for H. pylori.
Other cancers are linked to infection. For instance, cancer of the liver has increased in recent years due to infection with the hepatitis B virus. It occurs in people who have multiple sexual partners or who inject illegal drugs.
Fortunately hepatitis B and liver cancer can be prevented by a vaccine. Ideally everyone should be vaccinated to prevent these diseases. But it’s a must for all children, teenagers, those with multiple sex partners, drug abusers, and others who may be exposed to the virus such as health care workers, police and firemen. It’s also advisable for frequent travelers and those who visit undeveloped countries.
Today it’s believed that cervical cancer is due to the human papilloma virus. It’s an extremely common infection, but only a tiny fraction of women who carry the virus develop cancer.
The best protection is the annual Pap Smear. If the smear shows abnormal changes a microscopic examination and biopsy of the cervix can be done to rule out pre-cancerous disease.
For years it’s been believed that heart attack results from clogged arteries due to atherosclerosis. Now cardiologists have found that narrowed clogged vessels are often inflamed, which contributes to coronary attack and strokes.
Doctors are uncertain whether infection causes the inflammation. But they can monitor the degree of infection by a test called C-reactive protein (CRP). If you have a family history of early heart disease, increased cholesterol, diabetes or hypertension it makes sense to have this test done.
If CRP is elevated, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol lowering medication. Equally and possibly more important, he may suggest taking an Aspirin every day. Aspirin fights inflammation and it also decreases the risk of blood clot and heart attack. Studies show that Aspirin decreases the risk of a first coronary attack by an amazing 44 percent and the risk of a second heart attack by up to 50 percent. It also decreases the risk of stroke by 44 percent.
Will we ever be able to wipe out infection? I doubt it. Germs will be here long after humans have destroyed our planet one way or another.
W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of Harvard. Dr. Walker’s website is: docgiff.com.
Dr. Walker can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org?bcc=letters@canadafree.