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Cancer Health Center

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"Kissing Disease" Increases Cancer Risk

Viral Cause of Infectious Mononucleosis Linked to Hodgkin's Disease
WebMD Health News

Oct. 1, 2003 -- New research confirms a long-suspected link between infectious mononucleosis -- also known as the "kissing disease" -- and a cancer commonly found in young adults.

Researchers are implicating the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), the cause of mononucleosis, in roughly one-third of Hodgkin's disease cases.

Using a comprehensive nationwide medical database, investigators in Denmark compared 17,000 people with mononucleosis caused by Epstein-Barr virus to more than 24,000 people who were suspected of having mono, but did not have evidence of EBV.

The risk of Hodgkin's disease was higher in people with a positive antibody blood test that confirmed mononucleosis caused by EBV. No increased risk in Hodgkin's disease was found in those people suspected of having mono but testing negative for EBV.

An association between EBV and Hodgkin's disease has long been suspected. Studies have shown that there is a higher rate of the cancer in people with a history of mononucleosis. Studies also show that the virus is present in about 50% of these tumors.

In the current study, researchers found that mono caused by EBV quadrupled the risk of Hodgkin's disease. Mono-like illnesses caused by other viruses, such as cytomegalovirus, were not associated with Hodgkin's.

In addition, mono was directly linked to lymphomas that contained EBV and not to lymphomas with no evidence of the virus.

The findings are reported in the Oct. 2 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

From Mono to Lymphoma

The researchers estimated the average time between mononucleosis developing into Hodgkin's disease to be four years, with risks peaking two years after infection.

"But it is important to stress that while mononucleosis does increase the risk of getting Hodgkin's lymphoma, the risk is still very small -- on the order of one case of the cancer per 1,000 patients," study co-author Mads Melbye, MD, tells WebMD. "And it appears from this research that not all cases of Hodgkin's disease are related to this virus, as some people have suggested."

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