HPV and throat cancer

By Madeleine Castellanos, M.D.

Researchers have recently linked the significant increase in throat cancer to a particular strain of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers explain that there has been a 225% increase in throat cancer related to HPV 16 from the years 1988 to 2004, and predict that if this present trend continues, it will become more prevalent than the incidence of cervical cancer by the year 2020. While smoking is also a risk factor for throat cancer, researchers have seen this type of throat cancer on the decline while the HPV-related type continues to increase.

Human Papilloma Virus is known to be an extremely common virus that is transmitted by skin-to-skin transmission, with some estimated 50-75% of sexually active people contracting some form of it in their lives. There are many different strains, but not all are the cause of disease. Some types of HPV cause genital warts, or condylomas (types 6, 11) while others have been associated with cancers of the cervix, vagina, anus, penis and more recently, throat (types 16, 18). HPV has been the focus of much press in the recent years with the advent of the vaccine against HPV, which protects against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18.

What seems to be quite alarming is the rate at which it is now causing cancers of the throat, including base of the tongue, tonsils and pharynx. Since the virus can be passed along by saliva transfer, not just oral sex, but kissing too can be a method of passing the virus from one person to another. Most people know of the importance of wearing a condom during sex, but not too many think about protecting themselves from kissing. It is unclear if this will indeed reach epidemic proportions, but the vaccine protecting against the most carcinogenic strains could make all the difference starting with our current generation of young adults. It was developed to help prevent cervical cancer in women. But since the development of throat cancer is more common in men, this is a strong argument to have the vaccine to be administered to both boys and girls. The vaccine will prevent a person from contracting these particular strains, but cannot protect you once you have already been infected.

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