Every Saturday the CSPH highlights news or recent research in the field of human sexuality. This week we’re discussing recent research about the growth in the prevalence of oral cancer as a result of the Human Papillomavirus or the HPV virus.
Researchers from Ohio State University and the National Cancer Institute found that HPV-positive tumors now account for a majority of the cases of oropharyngeal cancer, or cancer of the middle area of the throat. Tobacco and alcohol have traditionally been the major causes of mouth and throat tumors, while the HPV virus is best known for causing cervical cancer in women. While it has been known for a while that men can be carriers of the virus, until recently, there was no evidence showing that the virus had harmful effects on men. This new research reports that both women and men can get oral cancer caused by HPV and that the risk is the greatest for men. According to Dr. Maura Gillison, senior author of the research, oral cancer has always been a bigger threat to men than women with women accounting for only about 1 in 4 cases. There are nearly 10,000 new cases of oropharyngeal cancer a year, and overall incidence has risen by 28% since 1988. The researchers estimated that about 8,700 cases of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer will be reported by 2020, about 7,400 of them in men.
Dr. Amy Chen of the American Cancer Society, who was quoted in The Huffington Post Online discussing this study, claims more data is needed regarding HPV leading to oral cancer. She also stated that patients with HPV-linked oral tumors have better survival odds than those with other types of this cancer, possibly because they tend to be younger. While HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, studies show women’s bodies usually clear the virus from the cervix quickly and that only an infection that persists for years is a cancer risk. The prevalence of cervical cancer has also been dropping steadily thanks to better pap smears and will hopefully decrease even more with the availability of the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine, while preventing many common types of the virus that tend to lead to cervical cancer and genital warts, does not prevent all types of HPV. There are approximately 40 known genital types of HPV – some can lead to cervical cancer and others can cause genital warts (it is possible to contract both). The vaccine is currently approved for both young women and boys to prevent the contraction of specific strands, but protection against oral HPV has not been studied in either gender.
Many sexual health professionals encourage people engaging in oral sex, especially with a new partner, to use a condom or male or dental dam in order to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While getting yourself and your partner(s) tested before engaging in unprotected sex is an extremely good idea, the problem with the HPV virus is that it is not screened for in a typical STD test. Because of the risk of spreading or contracting oral HPV, it is a good idea to go to a doctor after experiencing a sore throat for longer than two weeks even if you are not a smoker or a drinker.