Unravelling the multifaceted link between HIV and cancer

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is notorious for its assault on the immune system. Photo: IANS

The intersection of HIV and cancer poses a complex challenge in global health, requiring a nuanced understanding of the biological mechanisms and evolving strategies for prevention and treatment. As significant progress has been made in managing HIV as a chronic condition, an intricate relationship persists between this viral infection and an elevated susceptibility to specific cancers.

Understanding HIV's impact on the immune system:
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is notorious for its assault on the immune system, specifically targeting CD4 T cells. These cells play a vital role in defending the body against infections and diseases. The infiltrating and progressive dismantling of CD4 T cells by HIV weakens the immune response, leaving individuals more vulnerable to various health challenges, including cancer. Despite the transformative impact of Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) on HIV management, a heightened risk of certain cancers persists among those living with HIV.

Cancer risk in immunocompromised individuals:
The immune system serves as a vigilant protector, identifying and eliminating potentially cancerous cells. In the context of HIV infection, the compromised immune response diminishes this surveillance system, allowing uncontrolled proliferation of cells that could develop into cancer. This immunodeficiency becomes a pivotal factor contributing to the increased risk of cancer in individuals living with HIV.

Kaposi's sarcoma: A hallmark of HIV-associated cancer:
Kaposi's sarcoma stands out as a hallmark cancer associated with HIV. Characterized by distinctive purple or red lesions on the skin, mucous membranes, and internal organs, Kaposi's sarcoma is linked to Human Herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8). The prevalence of HHV-8 is higher in individuals with HIV, and the weakened immune response exacerbates the progression of this cancer. The role of ART in reducing the incidence of Kaposi's sarcoma underscores the pivotal connection between immune restoration and managing HIV-associated cancers.

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and the immunocompromised state:
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a diverse group of blood cancers, occurs more frequently in individuals with HIV. Specific subtypes, such as primary central nervous system lymphoma, are particularly prevalent in this population. The weakened immune system provides a conducive environment for lymphoma cells to thrive, leading to the development of tumors. While early detection and targeted therapies have improved outcomes, challenges persist in managing the intricate interplay between infections and cancer.

Cervical cancer, HPV, and the gender disparity:
In women with HIV, the risk of cervical cancer is significantly increased due to persistent infection with high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) types. HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, exhibits higher prevalence in individuals with HIV. The compromised immune system impedes the body's ability to clear these infections, emphasizing the importance of routine screening, early intervention, and HPV vaccination in comprehensive strategies for preventing and managing cervical cancer in this vulnerable population.

Anal cancer: A growing concern:
Anal cancer has emerged as a significant concern, particularly among men who have sex with men in the context of HIV. Persistent infection with human papillomavirus, notably HPV type 16, plays a pivotal role in its development. Regular screening and early treatment are essential for managing the elevated risk of anal cancer in people living with HIV.

The intricate relationship between HIV and cancer demands a comprehensive healthcare approach that addresses both infectious and oncologic aspects. While the advent of antiretroviral therapy has transformed the landscape of HIV management, ongoing research is essential to unravel the complexities of this connection fully. A holistic strategy encompassing regular screening, early detection, and targeted interventions is paramount in managing HIV-related cancers and improving overall health outcomes for this vulnerable population. As we navigate this complex nexus, the synergy between infectious disease and oncology perspectives will be crucial for developing effective prevention and treatment strategies in the evolving landscape of HIV and cancer coexistence.
(Dr Deepthi TR, Specialist in Early Cancer Detection and Prevention Oncure Preventive and Healthcare Center Kannur)

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