Study Finds Rise in HPV-related Throat Cancers


A new study by researchers at Ohio University found that throat cancers caused by HPV increased significantly in the United States in recent years.  According to an article in the New York Times, researchers tested tumor samples from 271 patients diagnosed with certain types of throat cancer between 1984 and 2004. HPV was found in only 16 percent of the samples from the 1980s but in 72 percent of those collected after 2000.

The virus, HPV type 16 which is also responsible for many cases of cervical cases, can be transmitted via oral sex.  The researchers estimated that over all, throat cancers caused by the virus have increased to 2.6 per 100,000 people in 2004 from 0.8 cases per 100,000 people in 1988. If the trend continues, they say, by 2020 the virus will  cause more throat cancer than cervical cancer each year.

One of the issues is that there is no early detection system for throat cancer.  Pap smears dramatically reduce the incidence of cervical cancer because they are able to detect early pre-cancerous changes to the cervix which can be treated before cancer develops. Throat cancers, in contrast, are usually not discovered until an individual has more generalized symptoms such as persistent sore throat or earache and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.  At this point patients may need surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. 

Fortunately, throat cancers caused by HPV are more treatable than those not caused by the virus and the survival rate is higher.

The research does not explain why these cancers are on the rise. Some suggest that people are engaging in oral sex more often than they used to, possibly because they think it is safer than vaginal sex.  The research also doesn’t explain why throat cancers caused by the virus far more common in men than in women.

Researchers warn that this study should not cause panic as throat cancer is still not common; HPV-related throat cancers occur in less than 10,000 individuals per year in the United States.  While HPV is very common, most people who contract the virus do not experience any related health issues or develop cancer.

It is also not entirely clear whether the existing HPV vaccines—Gardasil and Cervarix, both of which protect against HPV Type 16 and cervical cancer—will be effective against throat cancer.  While public health experts think the vaccines likely do provide protection, this cannot be confirmed without further research.  The New York Times reports that neither manufacturer—Merck and GlaxoSmithKlline—has plans to research this.

As any of us who have been following the Republican primary know, the CDC recommends that girls routinely be given the vaccines (as a series of 3 shots) beginning at age 11 or 12. The vaccines have been approved for use in boys as well, though they are not part of the routine recommendations for boys.    

This new research, however, suggests a rising cancer threat for men as well and may point to a more pressing need to vaccinate boys. 

It also raises questions about prevention messages around oral sex. We need to make sure that young people and adults alike understand the risks associated with oral sex as well as methods of preventing them. 

Suddenly, I’m having flashbacks to my days as a peer educator when I used to put a mint-flavored condom in my mouth during workshops to prove that they tasted good (or at least that they didn’t taste bad). 

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

To schedule an interview with contact director of communications Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner