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Professor Leo Kinlen
"Only a very small proportion of leukaemias can be accounted for by any established cause"
 real 28k

Friday, 16 March, 2001, 08:07 GMT
Leukaemia infection clue
Chemotherapy is used to treat leukaemia
Chemotherapy is used to treat leukaemia
A cluster of childhood leukaemia cases seen on Scottish islands during World War II could provide a clue as to how the disease develops.

Research by Cancer Research Campaign scientists showed that leukaemia cases were 3.6 times average rates in Orkney and Shetland during the war, when a large contingent of servicemen lived on the islands.

The incidence rate fell back to the Scottish average after the war.

One of the scientists who carried out the study, Professor Leo Kinlen, told BBC News Online it was highly likely that the mixing of local people and servicemen caused the increase in cases.


It all strongly suggests that an infection plays an important role in leukaemia

Professor Leo Kinlen,
Cancer Research Campaign
He said it added to evidence that infection was the cause of at least some childhood leukaemias.

The study, published in The Lancet, looked at records for over 12,000 children from the wartime period and 6,478 children born in Orkney and Shetland between 1946 and 1955.

In the wartime group, there were nine deaths compared to the Scottish average of 2.5.

The post-war group was followed up until 1970, and it was found there were just three deaths, compared with the 2.8 expected.

During World War II, as many as 60,000 servicemen were stationed on the island. There were also 40,000 naval personnel in the area.

Locals outnumbered

Orkney was also home to thousands of Irish construction workers, Italian prisoners of war and Norwegian refugees.

The incoming population outnumbered the local people.

Professor Kinlen said: "Increases like this have been found in other situations where there's been a mixing of populations within rural areas.

"It all strongly suggests that an infection plays an important role in leukaemia."

However, Professor Kinlen stressed that the development of cancer was a very rare complication of an infection that in most people would cause no illness at all.

Angela Balkiwell, who co-wrote the study added: "We think the most likely explanation for the difference is that the war-time group were newly exposed to a leukaemia-causing infection"

Ken Campbell, clinical information officer for the Leukaemia Research Fund said: "This research has tackled the issue in an extremely imaginative way and adds extra data to the existing body of evidence supporting the hypothesis of population mixing as a contributory cause of childhood leukaemia."

Vaccine hope

The CRC said it believed Professor Kinlen's study provided further evidence that a mystery infection, probably a virus, is one of the factors responsible for childhood leukaemia.

It said if the infectious agent could be identified, the next step might be a vaccine to prevent leukaemia from developing.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC, added: "This work is important because it provides further evidence that an  infection such as a virus, is an important - if not the most important - cause of childhood leukaemia.

"We're now a step closer to the ultimate goal of leukaemia research, which is to track down the nature of the infection and develop vaccines against it."

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See also:

04 Dec 00 | Health
Double leukaemia breakthrough
30 Nov 00 | Health
Child cancer survival doubles
29 Oct 99 | Health
Child leukaemia 'starts in womb'
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