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Friday, 4 August, 2000, 01:05 GMT 02:05 UK
Clues to massive leukaemia rise
Infections picked up in childhood could trigger disease
A "mystery infection" could partly explain why so many UK youngsters are falling prey to a common form of leukaemia.

Researchers writing in the medical journal The Lancet have found that toddlers are 70% more likely to develop acute lymphoblastic leukaemia than they were 20 years ago.

The experts have worked out that many of the extra cases are a sub-group of the disease called "pre-cursor B-cell".

This adds weight to theories that exposure to some sort of childhood infection could be a culprit, as other evidence has linked infections to this variant.

The finding has led to suggestions that modern lifestyles have somehow lessened children's ability to deal with common infections.

However, all the researchers involved are keen to stress that their finding falls a long way short of proof for this theory.

Dr Richard McNally of the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital said: "For the first time, we have shown that the big increase in cases of this particular sub-type of leukaemia is only happening in one to four-year olds.

"We believe it could be because youngsters' immune systems are becoming less good at warding off these infections.

"And that could be because higher living standards mean children are not exposed to so much infection earlier on in life and so their immunity is weaker."

Less common elsewhere

Data from other countries supports this theory - rates of lymphoid leukaemias like these are far less common in less developed countries.

For example, boys under four years old in Bombay have only a third of the chance of developing the illness.

Leukaemia - a cancer which affects blood cells is the commonest cancer in children, with approximately 450 cases diagnosed in children under 15 every year.

There are four distinct types depending on the way the disease progresses and the type of blood cell involved, and many sub-types besides.

The normal treatment involves chemotherapy, although a bone marrow transplant may be required in some cases.

Another researcher, Professor Tim Eden, from the University of Manchester, said that it was likely that genetic changes in blood cells that happen in the womb could predispose a child to the illness, which could then be triggered by the infection.

"Don't know why"

"As yet we have no idea what the infection or infections are but it seems likely that they will be common ones."

The director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, Professor Gordon McVie, said: "This is an important piece of research because experts have known for a long time that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia has gone up but didn't know why.

"The suggestion that increased living standards may have increased people's susceptibility to a mystery infection or infections is also extremely interesting."

See also:

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