Throat Cancer and HPV

27 10 2008

When people consider the risks of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, they usually think about cervical cancer or genital warts.  Throat cancer doesn’t even make the radar screen.  Maybe it should.

Researchers are finding that HPV is the cause of a growing number of throat cancer cases in the United States.  In the February, 2008, U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Bernadine Healy laid it out in plain style:

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that this rise in oropharyngeal cancer is linked to changing sexual practices and, in particular, ones that involve bathing the throat with HPV-infected fluid.  Increasingly, scientists are implicating HPV-16, and in some cases 18, the same ones that causes cervical cancer.  In 2006, a Swedish study of preserved surgical specimens from excised oropharyngeal cancers going back over 30 years identified HPV-16 in less than a quarter of specimens removed in the 1970s.  By the 1990s, the proportion was 57 percent.  After 2000, it was 68 percent.  In 2007, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found HPV-16 in 72 percent of oropharyngeal cancers in the United States.  Not proof, but based on correlations with sexual behavior, and an abundance of similar findings both here and around the world over the past few years, there is credible if not alarming medical concern that the infection is being acquired through unprotected oral sex.

The Boomer generation led the sexual revolution, not realizing that practicing oral sex was still an exchange of body fluid and therefore risky behavior.  Men and women in their 40s and 50s are starting to see their peers affected by this cancer.  Well, now we know, and we can take steps to stop infection in ourselves and the younger generations.  Stop the infection, stop the cancer. 

Check with your healthcare provider to see what methods of prevention will work best for you – and your loved ones.


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