Infection and The Nation's Number one Killer

BFP Magazine

Cardio-vascular Health

Infection, peptic ulcers, heart attack, cancer

Infection and The Nation's Number one Killer

By Dr. W. Gifford Jones

December 26, 2005

For centuries infection has been the number one killer. But several years ago it appeared that antibiotics and vaccines had largely eradicated this menace. Then unexpectedly the AIDS virus struck with a vengeance. Lately, to the surprise of everyone, scientists are now linking infection to, peptic ulcers, heart attack and cancer. So how can you protect yourself and your family from these problems?

In 1984 an Australian physician, Barry Marshall, decided to prove that his theory was right. He drank a bacteria laced concoction to show that it was bacteria, not stress, that caused peptic ulcers. Subsequent studies confirmed that most ulcers are infected with a bacterium called H. pylori.

But there's a problem. About half the people over 60 years of age have H. pylori in their stomach. But only about 5 to 20 percent suffer from ulcers. In fact, it's believed that H. pylori may even decrease stomach acid and help to ease heartburn in some cases. It's obvious that treating everyone who has H. pylori is not a prudent move.

We also know that there are other causes of ulcers. Patients who take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and Aspirin cause about 25 percent of cases.

So what do doctors do? Patients with ulcer symptoms such as pain that eases by eating and recurs several hours later or during the night should be tested for H. pylori. This can be done by either a blood sample or testing the breath.

Some doctors, however, routinely use endoscopy in which a lighted instrument is inserted down the throat to examine the stomach and upper part of the small bowel. If an ulcer is present a combination of antibiotics is prescribed to eliminate H. pylori.

Can H. pylori trigger cancer? Since H. pylori is so common and stomach cancer rare it's not a major cause. But researchers believe that by causing chronic irritation to the stomach's lining it may on occasion trigger malignancy. It therefore makes sense that patients with a family history of stomach cancer should be tested for H. pylori.

Other cancers are linked to infection. For instance, cancer of the liver has increased in recent years due to infection with the hepatitis B virus. It occurs in people who have multiple sexual partners or who inject illegal drugs.

But hepatitis B and liver cancer can be prevented by a vaccine. Ideally everyone should be vaccinated with. But it's a must for all children, teenagers, those with multiple sex partners, drug abusers, and others who may be exposed to the virus such as health care workers, police and firemen. It's also advisable for frequent travelers and those who visit undeveloped countries.

Today it's believed that cervical cancer is due to the human papilloma virus. It's an extremely common infection, but only a tiny fraction of women who carry the virus develop cancer.

The best protection is the annual Pap Smear. If the smear shows abnormal changes a microscopic examination and biopsy of the cervix can be done to rule out pre-cancerous disease.

For years it's been believed that heart attack results from clogged arteries due to atherosclerosis. Now cardiologists have found that narrowed clogged vessels are often inflamed which contributes to coronary attack and strokes.

Doctors are uncertain whether infection causes the inflammation. But they can monitor the degree of infection by a test called C-reactive protein (CRP). If you have a family history of early heart disease, increased cholesterol, diabetes or hypertension it makes sense to have this test done.

If CRP is elevated your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol lowering medication. Equally and possibly more important he may suggest taking a Aspirin every day. Aspirin fights inflammation and it also decreases the risk of a blood clot. Studies show that Aspirin decreases the risk of a first coronary attack by an amazing 44 percent and the risk of a second heart attack by up to 50 percent. It also decreases the risk of stroke by 44 percent.

W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of The Harvard Medical School. He's been a ship's surgeon, hotel physician and family doctor and later trained in surgery at McGill in Montreal, University of Rochester N.Y. and Harvard. His medical column is published by 60 Canadian newspapers and several in the U.S. He is the author of seven books. Dr. Walker has a medical practice in Toronto. His Web site is: He can be reached at

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