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Cancer Causes Control. 1998 May;9(3):285-98.

Evidence that childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia is associated with an infectious agent linked to hygiene conditions.

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National Cancer Institute, Division of Cancer Treatment and Diagnosis, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.



The incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in children has shown temporal and geographic variation during the 20th century, with higher rates in developed nations appearing in the first half of the century, but with persisting low rates in developing nations. We sought to assess the relation of childhood ALL with hygiene conditions, an aspect of socioeconomic development affecting rates of exposure to infectious agents.


Infection patterns for hepatitis A virus (HAV), an agent with a fecal-oral route of transmission, were used to indicate hygiene conditions in different populations, with emphasis on instructive United States and Japanese data. A catalytic model was fit to these data, estimating the HAV force of infection and age-specific seroprevalence rates over time. These analyses were used to assess the temporal relationship of changes in HAV infection rates to changes in childhood leukemia mortality and incidence rates.


We observed an inverse relationship between HAV infection prevalence and rates of childhood leukemia. Further, decreases in the HAV force of infection in the United States and Japan appear to have preceded increases in childhood leukemia rates. We describe a model based on a putative leukemia-inducing agent with a change in infection rate over time correlated with that of HAV that describes well the temporal trends in childhood leukemia rates for White children in the US and for Japanese children.


The data suggest that improved public hygiene conditions, as measured by decreased prevalence of HAV infection, are associated with higher childhood ALL incidence rates. The model that we present supports the plausibility of the hypothesis that decreased childhood exposure to a leukemia-inducing agent associated with hygiene conditions leads to higher rates of ALL in children by increasing the frequency of in utero transmission caused by primary infection during pregnancy (or by increasing the number of individuals infected in early infancy because of lack of protective maternal antibodies).

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