WASHINGTON — The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is commonly associated with sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer. So, when the well-known actor Michael Douglas implied that his throat cancer was caused by HPV, contracted through oral sex, the news made headlines around the world. HPV-caused oral cancer has been on the rise and mostly affects men.
The human papillomavirus, HPV, is actually many different viruses. One particular strain causes oral cancer, and doctors say the number of cases is reaching epidemic levels. Most of the victims are men who live in developed countries.
“There are almost about 20 million people in the US who have been infected and have this virus. Most of them, however, are not related to that particular HPV16 virus which is responsible for oropharyngeal cancer,” said Dr. Mumtaz Khan, a head and neck specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Yet Khan says HPV16-related cancer is reaching epidemic levels.
“The rate of oral oropharyngeal cancer related to HPV has significantly risen in the last two decades. I can give you an example of several studies quoting tonsil cancers to be about 28 percent related to HPV back in the 80’s, and now it’s up to 68-80 percent,” Khan said.
Right now there is no way to screen for oral cancer, so Khan says patients need to monitor themselves regularly.
"People should look for anything which is unusual, atypical, something new that is persisting, not going away, like a lump in the neck, a sore in the mouth, difficulty swallowing, change in voice," Khan said.
Khan says this type of cancer is very curable. But the infection can be prevented. HPV16 is one of the viruses targeted by the HPV vaccine. Khan says as the vaccine becomes more widely used, it's likely there will be fewer cases of this type of oral cancer.
In a recent study, however, the number of parents in the US who indicated they would not vaccinate their daughters against HPV increased from 40 to 44 percent. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that boys be vaccinated against HPV.
In one promising discovery, researchers at the US National Cancer Institute said antibodies against the human papillomavirus may help identify those at risk for HPV-related oral cancer. Although the findings are preliminary, one day a simple blood test might be able to identify patients at risk.