Doctors used to think this STD threatened only women. Then the men started dying.
The culprit: Human papillomavirus (HPV), the same sexually transmitted infection associated with cervical cancer in women. A huge spike in the number of head and neck cancers linked to HPV over nearly two decades is raising alarms about the risk of the sexually contracted infections in a whole new population: men.
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A study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reports there’s been a 225 percent uptick in HPV-positive oropharynx cancers since 1998, according to data from three U.S. cancer centers. The study also predicts that by 2020, oropharyngeal cancer will be the most common HPV-associated cancer in the U.S. surpassing cervical cancer.
Previously, tobacco and alcohol use had been the main causes of these tumors, which occur in the tonsils, base of the tongue and upper throat. But over the past few years, studies have shown HPV is playing a role in these cancer rates, likely due to an increase in oral sex even as tobacco use has fallen.
While HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, studies show women’s bodies usually clear the virus from the cervix quickly; only an infection that persists for years is a cancer risk. It’s not known if oral HPV acts in a similar way, nor is it clear if oral sex is the only way it’s transmitted, said Dr. Gregory Masters of the American Society for Clinical Oncology.
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Regardless, more than 11,000 cervical cancer cases will be diagnosed this year, a number that has been dropping steadily thanks to better Pap smears. The researchers calculated that annual cases of cervical cancer will drop to 7,700 by 2020 – compared with about 8,700 cases of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer – about 7,400 of them in men.
The report raises the question: Can the vaccine that’s currently given to young women protect men against oral HIV?
HPV vaccination is approved for boys to prevent genital warts and anal cancer, additional problems caused by human papillomavirus. But protection against oral HPV hasn’t been studied in either gender, said report author Dr. Maura Gillison, a head-and-neck cancer specialist at Ohio State.
A spokeswoman for Merck & Co., maker of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, said the company has no plans to study the vaccine on oral cancer.
Regardless, the cancer society said the report suggests 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.
Have a sore throat that lasts longer than two weeks? See a doctor. Just because you’re not a smoker or drinker doesn’t mean you can’t get throat cancer.
Visit BlackDoctor.org’s STD center for more info on HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases.