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Throat Cancer, Oral Sex and HPV Linked

CancerWise - October 2007


By Darcy De Leon

A link between throat cancer, oral sex and the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) has prompted researchers to encourage vaccination of boys with the HPV virus if ongoing studies deem it safe and effective in preventing viral infection, according to a review article published in the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Cancer.

Significance

The recommendation for HPV vaccination in boys is one of the first to be publicly made by oncologists from a national cancer center.

Erich Sturgis, M.D.M. D. Anderson's Erich Sturgis, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, and Paul Cinciripini, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science, wrote the review.

"We encourage the rapid study of the efficacy and safety of these vaccines in males and, if successful, the recommendation of vaccination in young adult and adolescent males," they write in the report.

Research methods

Sturgis and Cinciripini analyzed the most recent data containing head and neck cancer trends in the United States and reported the connection between throat cancer and HPV.

Primary results

Their review shows that a decline in smoking over the last 20 years (due to increased efforts to raise public awareness about the effects of tobacco use) has led to a decline in most head and neck cancers, except throat cancer. Also known as cancer of the oropharynx, throat cancer includes cancers of the tonsils, base of the tongue and soft palate, and side and back of the throat.

They attribute the steady throat cancer statistics to the HPV virus (specifically HPV-16), which can be transmitted through oral sex.

HPV-16 also causes cervical cancer, but researchers state that cervical cancer has been in decline in the United States (probably because of cervical screening, which results in the successful treatment of pre-malignant cervical lesions). There is no current treatment for similar pre-malignant lesions in throat cancer.

"Although speculative, more widespread use of condoms also could have contributed to the decline in the incident rates of cervical cancer, but changing sexual practices, such as more frequent oral sex among adolescents and young adults, could contribute to an increase in oncogenic HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers," the report states.

Background

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a vaccine against HPV-16 and HPV-18 for adolescent girls and young women. Studies for the vaccine in young men and boys are ongoing.

What's next?

The researchers say that with time, the effects of the vaccine in young women and girls should result in a lower prevalence of HPV as well as throat cancer, but that is not enough. "To hasten the reduction of HPV-16 prevalence in the population, widespread vaccination of adolescent and young adult males should also be considered," they write.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center