Helicobacter pylori Infection – A Boon or a Bane: Lessons from Studies in a Low-Prevalence Population


Reprint requests to: Yeong Yeh Lee, School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 16150 Kubang Kerian, Kelantan, Malaysia. E-mail: justnleeyy@gmail.com


Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection is etiologically associated with gastric cancer and peptic ulcer diseases which are both important public health burdens which could be largely eliminated by H. pylori eradication. However, some investigators urge caution based on the hypothesis that eradication of H. pylori may result in an increase in the incidence of gastroesophageal reflux disease, esophageal adenocarcinoma, and childhood asthma. The ethnic Malays of northeastern Peninsular Malaysia have long had a low prevalence of H. pylori infection and, as expected, the incidence of gastric cancer and its precursor lesions is exceptionally low. The availability of a population with a low H. pylori prevalence and generally poor sanitation allows separation of H. pylori from the hygiene hypothesis and direct testing of whether absence of H. pylori is associated with untoward consequence. Contrary to predictions, in Malays, erosive esophagitis, Barrett's esophagus, distal esophageal cancers, and childhood asthma are all of low incidence. This suggests that H. pylori is not protective rather the presence of H. pylori infection is likely a surrogate for poor hygiene and not an important source of antigens involved in the hygiene hypothesis. Helicobacter pylori in Malays is related to transmission from H. pylori-infected non-Malay immigrants. The factors responsible for low H. pylori acquisition, transmission, and burden of H. pylori infection in Malays remain unclear and likely involves a combination of environmental, host (gene polymorphisms), and strain virulence factors. Based on evidence from this population, absence of H. pylori infection is more likely to be boon than a bane.