Surge in throat cancers in the West linked to oral sex

There has been a huge increase in throat cancers in the UK and US and experts believe oral sex is the main reason.

Some even believe it is turning into an epidemic and it is mainly due to oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the area of the tonsils and back of the throat. Professor Hisham Mehanna, of the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham, says that 70% of cases of throat cancer are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), which is also the main cause of cancer of the cervix.

They generally tend to be harmless, but can cause genital warts or cancer in some people.  Professor Mehanna revealed that oropharyngeal cancer is now becoming more common than cervical cancer in the West.

He told The Conversation: “HPV is sexually transmitted. For oropharyngeal cancer, the main risk factor is the number of lifetime sexual partners, especially oral sex.

“Those with six or more lifetime oral-sex partners are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not practise oral sex.”

He and his colleagues carried out a UK study of 1,000 people having tonsillectomy for non-cancer reasons and it was revealed that 80% of adults reported having oral sex at some point in their lives.

There is a vaccine for HPV, but only 54% of Americans have received it – much lower than the 80% figure believed to be a threshold for population safety – while there will be 54,000 cases of oral or oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed in the US this year, causing 9,750 deaths.

Scientists at NYU Langone, in New York, believe that as many as 70% of throat cancer cases are caused by HPV infections.

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Professor Mehanna added: “HPV vaccination of young girls has been implemented in many countries to prevent cervical cancer. There is now increasing, albeit as yet indirect evidence that it may also be effective in preventing HPV infection in the mouth. 

“There is also some evidence to suggest that boys are also protected by ‘herd immunity’ in countries where there is high vaccine coverage in girls (over 85%). Taken together, this may hopefully lead in a few decades to the reduction of oropharyngeal cancer.”

He also said it was recommended that boys also have the HPV vaccine, but some countries oppose the vaccination due to concerns about safety.

Dr Eric Boakye, an assistant scientist at Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit, said: “Over 90% of HPV-associated cancers could be prevented with the HPV vaccine, yet vaccine uptake remains sub-optimal.

“Given the connections between HPV-associated cancer awareness and HPV vaccine uptake, it is important we increase the population’s awareness of this link, as it may help increase vaccine uptake.”

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