We have already discussed Human papillomavirus (HPV) and it’s role in causing cervical cancer. However in recent days the role of Human papillomavirus in causing oral cancers has been in the media thanks to the assertion by Michael Douglas that oral sex gave him HPV which led to throat cancer.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a relatively common sexually transmitted virus that infects humans. HPV spreads via the keratinocytes of the skin or mucous membranes and can be transmitted that way during sex. One of the difficulties in avoiding HPV is that it often causes no symptoms in people affected with it. Some variants of the virus can cause warts and some can even lead to cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and more.
In the United States oral cancers are on the rise and medical professionals suggest that as many as 10’000 cases could be prevented with simple vaccines.
Michael Douglas said that he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010 and he believes that the cancer developed because of the HPV virus which he was infected with while performing oral sex. The 68 year old actor told the Guardian newspaper: “Because without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus,”
The actor’s publicist Allen Burry later clarified the statement, saying that Douglas “never said it was the cause of his particular cancer. They did discuss it. He did say oral sex is a suspected cause of certain oral cancers. He did not say it was his specifically.”
The statement by Douglas is backed up by recent trends in the United States which have seen the HPV virus partially responsible for the increasing number of throat cancers, according to some doctors.
In the United states over 60% of the 11’718 cases of oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed each year are a result of HPV infection according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 3000 Americans are diagnosed with anal cancer each year, brought on by HPV and the rate of infection appears to be climbing.
There has been a recent push to vaccinate women against the virus to lower cervical cancer rates, but only 2% of boys are vaccinated against HPV in the United States. Statistically men are more likely to get HPV than women, due to sexual activity, so it is a deeply concerning figure.
Dr Kevin Cullen of the University of Maryland’s Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center says: “By the time they become adults, throat cancer from HPV in men is four times more likely than cervical cancer in women.”
It usually takes more than 20 years after exposure to the HPV virus for a cancer to develop. Medical professionals suggest that the younger generations changing sexual behavior, including more oral sex, is leading to a higher risk of HPV spreading throughout the community. Orpharyngeal squamous cell cancers, those of the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue are already on the increase.
Some studies have already reflected an increase in the prevalence of oral sex and the rise in oral cancers. In most developed countries more than 50% of all girls are vaccinated against HPV, and that figure is increasing every year. However with the small number of boys being vaccinated, there is a real risk of a throat cancer epidemic in coming years. Women can also get throat cancer from HPV, but the rate is much lower than men.
Two licensed vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix are available in the United States and recommended by the CDC. Both of those vaccines will protect against cervical, anal, and oral cancers caused by HPV virus transmission.
The virus is still very common with nearly 80 million Americans infected with HPV and an estimated 14 million more getting the virus every year. The virus is so common that nearly every sexually active adult will get some strain of the virus in their lifetime.
In a socially conservative country like the United States, unfortunately many people are reluctant to get their daughters vaccinated because they don’t believe their daughter will be sexually promiscuous. However even if your daughter has only 1 sexual partner in their lifetime, it is still very likely they will be exposed to HPV and could potentially get cervical cancer from that infection. In addition other forms of sexual activity can spread the virus, so even if they aren’t having penetrative sex and remaining a virgin, they may be having oral sex and receive the virus.
Overall the rate of vaccination is increasing, so cervical cancer rates are falling, but it remains a significant problem amongst young men and the potential for a oral cancer epidemic in the coming years is very real.