Burkitt Lymphoma

What is Burkitt Lymphoma?

Developing in B lymphocytes (B cells), Burkitt lymphoma is a fast-growing form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Originally discovered in children in Africa, it’s a form of cancer that affects the immune system and requires immediate attention. Often starting in the abdomen, it can also develop in spinal fluid and sex organs (testicles, ovaries). Due to the rapid growth of the related tumor, treatment is aggressive in nature. When detected and treated early, survival rates improve.

Types of Burkitt Lymphoma

There are three types of Burkitt Lymphoma. Twice as common in boys than girls, endemic Burkitt lymphoma is the first version of this cancer that was discovered in Africa. Occurrences of sporadic Burkitt lymphoma are found throughout the world, with this variation accounting for approximately 40 percent of pediatric lymphomas and 1-2 percent of adult cases. Immunodeficiency-associated Burkitt lymphoma is common in individuals with HIV/AIDS and congenital conditions.

What are the Symptoms of Burkitt Lymphoma?

Symptoms of Burkitt Lymphoma include

  • Swollen, rapidly growing lymph nodes (neck, under arms, groin)
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Fever or night sweats

Burkitt Lymphoma Causes

There are three different types of Burkitt lymphoma, each one with its own causes. The first, known as endemic or “African” Burkitt lymphoma most commonly affects children in Africa and is thought to be caused by a previous infection of malaria and Epstein-Barr virus (EPC), which is what causes infectious mononucleosis (mono). It is believed that the malaria reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off Epstein-Barr and instead changes immune cells into cancerous cells.

With sporadic type Burkitt lymphoma, which occurs worldwide, it is not clear whether EPV is responsible. EPV is an incredibly common infection, but only a very tiny percentage of people who have it will go on to develop sporadic Burkitt lymphoma.

Finally, the third type of the disease is immunodeficiency-associated, and tends to be linked with HIV and AIDS. It is believed that in these cases, the deficient immune system might turn immune cells into cancerous cells in much the same way that malaria and EPV do in the African form of the disease. Immunodeficiency-associated Burkitt lymphoma can also affect others with compromised immune systems caused by congenital conditions or the use of immunosuppressive drugs, which are usually taken by patients who have had an organ transplant.

How is Burkitt Lymphoma Treated?

Diagnosis is achieved through a combination of PET and CT scans, bone marrow and lymph node biopsies, and blood and spinal fluid tests. Intensive chemotherapy is the primary treatment method since Burkitt lymphoma is an aggressive form of cancer. If chemotherapy is unsuccessful, a bone marrow transplant may be recommended.

A compromised immune system can also increase the risk of developing Burkitt lymphoma, which is more common in males among all forms of this cancer. A possible link to Epstein-Barr (a type of herpes virus) has been suggested, but not confirmed. While it’s a treatable cancer, the cure rate can be affected by whether or not it spreads to spinal fluid or bone marrow. Survival rates also decrease if it comes back following a period of remission.

Burkitt Lymphoma Prevention

It is not possible to prevent Burkitt lymphoma, but it may be possible to reduce the risk of developing the condition by avoiding infections such as malaria, mono and HIV/AIDs.

The best prevention for HIV/AIDs is to practice safe sex, since it is transmitted by sexual intercourse. It can also be transmitted through blood and therefore the use of intravenous drugs, particularly with the use of shared needles, should be avoided.

Mono can be spread through a number of bodily fluids, but most notably saliva. For this reason, it’s important to avoid kissing individuals who are currently infected, or sharing drinks, food, cutlery, toothbrushes or anything else which may have become contaminated.

Finally, malaria may be prevented by using an insect repellent that contains DEET, and sleeping underneath mosquito nets. Long pants and long-sleeved shirts should also be worn in areas where malaria is common.

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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
November 22, 2017