This month I will examine what is being called an epidemic in some medical circles, the rise in HPV related oropharyngeal cancers. Those are cancers of the head and throat that are being caused by the Human Papilloma Virus. Over the past 20 years, these types of cancers, particularly those caused by HPV 16, the same virus that causes cervical cancer, have tripled. At the same time, HPV-negative oropharynx cancers, cancers not caused by HPV, dropped 50%–most likely because of a reduction in smoking and tobacco use.
HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) is one of the most common virus groups in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6 million people become newly infected each year. Often a harmless infection that the body eliminates itself, some strains of HPV have been known for decades to the medical community to cause cervical cancer in women. This sexually transmitted disease is now being linked to increased instances of other health issues and is known to be found in over 50% of newly diagnosed cases of oral cancer in both men and women.
Oral HPV infection is nearly three times as common in men, affecting 10.1% of them and only 3.6% of women, according to the study, conducted as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study doesn't explain why HPV infection is more common in men. However, doctors have long noted that throat cancers are far more common in men than in women.
A surge in HPV related oral cancer has been noticed by researchers at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “What you’re seeing here is a five-fold increase in the numbers that we would expect. So that, to me, is an epidemic,” said Dr. Marshall Posner of the Dana Faber Cancer Institute.
By looking at the effects of various behaviors on infection rates, the CDC study showed that a greater number of lifetime sexual partners as well as sexual activity of any kind heightened the risk. The disease also becomes more common with increasing age. Smoking also increases the rates of cancers that are caused by HPV.
At every checkup, you should be receiving an oral cancer screening by your dentist. This includes the insides of your cheeks, your palate and having your tongue pulled forward so your dentist can look at the back parts of it too. Different instruments or certain rinses may also be used. If your dentist finds a lesion that is suspicious she/he may ask you to return in 14 days to see if it is still present. Oral Cancer rates in the United States are still low, but the survival rate is still unfortunately around 50%. The only way we have right now to change that, is to catch oropharyngeal cancers early, by screening for them.