In other countries, the leading cause of oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancer is tobacco; in the United States, it’s oral sex. Shocking?
Dr. Maura Gillson of Ohio State University reported her group’s findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science this past weekend. It is now the human papillomavirus (HPV) that is the leading cause of oropharyngeal cancer (67% of all oropharyngeal cancers), and the more oral sex one has, and the more partners one has, the greater the risk of getting these cancers, which tend to grow in the middle of the throat.
“An individual who has six or more lifetime partners — on whom they’ve performed oral sex – has an eightfold increase in risk compared to someone who has never performed oral sex,” she said.
Gillison also reported that “every birth cohort appears to be at greater risk from HPV and oral cancers than the group born before them.” And indeed, Swedish researchers undertook longitudinal studies of HPV related oral cancers and found that between 1970 and 2005, the HPV was responsible for 23 percent in 1970 until 2005 when it accounted for 93 percent.
Is there good news here? Well, researchers say that survival rates from HPV related oral cancers are higher than survival rates from tobacco related oral cancers. For now, the advice to parents and health educators is to talk about oral sex.
HPV can also cause cervical cancer and there are vaccines available for teens and young women for that virus; however it is unknown whether or not these vaccines are preventative for oropharyngeal cancer caused by HPV. Gillison reported that currently the highest percentage of mouth and throat cancers is among young, white men, but the reason for that is not known. Perhaps men should also be vaccinated against HPV?
Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco studied 600 adolescents over 10 years and found that oral sex is much more common than vaginal sex, noting “teens don’t consider oral sex to be sex. Parents and health educators are not talking to teens about oral sex. Period.”