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Home Other HPV Cancers Other HPV Cancers More Evidence Links HPV to Some Head and Neck Cancers

More Evidence Links HPV to Some Head and Neck Cancers

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Swedish investigators find that oral infection with “high risk” HPV is behind a surge in some head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancers include those of the oral cavity, and most HPV-related head and neck cancers are of the oropharynx (tongue, soft palate, and tonsils). Oropharyngeal cancers are also referred to as oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinomas (OSCC). Using statistics from the Swedish Cancer Registry – a data set prized because it covers nearly all cases of cancer in the country spanning several decades- researchers Torbjörn Ramqvist and Tina Dalianis found rates of tonsil cancer in the Stockholm area (where a large number of OOSC are treated) increased 2.8 times between 1970-2002. During the same period, the number of these tumors with HPV DNA detected jumped from 23% to 68%.

The authors observe that OSCC – and the proportion of those tumors positive for HPV - have increased in northern Europe and the U.S. in the past few decades. They say OSCC currently are about one-third of all HNSCC in Sweden, a trend that will likely be found in the U.S. and elsewhere.

While the spate of research linking HPV to some oropharyngeal cancers might seem alarming, it’s important to note these diseases are actually uncommon. The American Cancer Society estimates about 26,000 new cases occur each year in the U.S. (a figure that’s been decreasing in recent decades), with fewer than 6,000 related deaths. The majority of these cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use, with only a subset associated with HPV.

Ramqvist T, Dalianis T. Oropharyngeal cancer epidemic and human papillomavirus. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2010. Accessed online October 15, 2010.