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Home Other HPV Cancers Other HPV Cancers Oral Cancer Rates Up Sharply Since 1970s

Oral Cancer Rates Up Sharply Since 1970s

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Data presented at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and reported in numerous media outlets provide more evidence of the link between HPV, oral sex, and the development of some oral 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). Tobacco and alcohol use is strongly linked to these diseases, but “high risk” HPV is increasingly found to play a role, perhaps accounting for half or more of oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S. At the AAAS meeting, Ohio State University researcher Dr. Maura Gillison said oral cancers increased 225% in the U.S. from the mid-1970s through 2007.

Earlier research by Gypsyamber D’Souza, Ph.D., and colleagues demonstrated that oral sex is a risk for cancers of the oropharynx. In a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2009, she and her team found the risk of oral HPV infection grew as the number of oral sex partners increased. HPV was detected most often in the oral cavity of those who had six or more oral sex partners in the previous 12 months.

There are two HPV vaccines (Gardasil® and Cervarix®) on the market, and both are effective against the HPV types most commonly found with cervical cancers (Gardasil® also prevents infection with the types of HPV that typically cause genital warts). One of the HPV types linked with cervical cancers (and covered by both vaccines), HPV 16, is also common in HPV-related head and neck tumors, leading many experts to call for more research to evaluate the potential of the vaccines in preventing these diseases.

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.

G D’Souza, Y Agrawal, J Halpern, S Bodison, M Gillison. Oral Sexual Behaviors Associated with Prevalent Oral Human Papillomavirus Infection. Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2009. 199 (9): 1263-69.