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Possible link between brain cancer, measles and flu

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by Cancer Research UK | News

17 September 2002

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Tentative evidence has been uncovered of a link between childhood brain cancer and exposure to infection with measles or flu around the time of birth, scientists report in the British Journal of Cancer1.

Children in areas where cases of measles were common around the time they were born were at twice the normal risk of developing brain tumours, according to the study, while exposure to influenza appeared to triple children’s risk.

In March, Cancer Research UK scientists reported the first evidence that childhood brain cancers might be caused by infection. The new study which researchers stress is only preliminary – is the first to suggest that particular infections may be involved.

Scientists in Newcastle examined all birth records in Cumbria from 1975 to 1992 amounting to a total of 100,000 and recorded in which of the county’s six districts the births took place. For each district they assessed exposure levels to a number of infections, including measles and influenza, by counting the number of cases and deaths that occurred each month.

Scientists estimated exposure levels before birth, in the three months around and immediately after birth and in the subsequent period of three months. They then attempted to relate levels of infection to the risk of developing brain tumours later on in life.

The risk of developing brain cancer before the age of 14 was more than doubled with high exposure to measles around the time of birth and more than tripled with exposure to the flu virus over the same period, the study found. Exposure to measles or flu at other times, and exposure to other kinds of infection, seemed to have no effect on cancer rates.

Lead researcher Professor Louise Parker, at the University of Newcastle’s North of England Cancer Research Unit, comments: “There’s increasing interest in the possibility that exposure to infections very early on in life might contribute to the incidence of children’s brain cancer and our study is certainly consistent with that possibility.

“It’s difficult to produce strong evidence on the causes of childhood brain cancer because the disease is rare and even when you look at large numbers of children, in our case 100,000, the number of cancers will be quite small. But our results do suggest that measles and flu could be associated with increased risk of the disease, and therefore that avoiding these infections might be one way of reducing cancer rates.”

Cancer Research UK’s Prof Jillian Birch, Director of the charity’s Paediatric and Familial Cancer Research Group in Manchester, comments: “These interesting results do provide some further support for the idea that infections may be involved in childhood brain tumours. But the results should be viewed with caution as they are based on a very small number of cases. Further work is needed to see whether similar findings can be demonstrated in an independent set of data”

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief of Executive of Cancer Research UK, which owns the British Journal of Cancer, adds: “It’s important that we get to the bottom of the causes of childhood brain cancer, as this may help us to find new ways of treating the disease.”


  1. British Journal of Cancer87(7)

Note to Editors:

Childhood brain cancer is a rare disease, affecting around 290 children each year and causing about 100 deaths.