March 4, 2011 ( – Doctors in Canada and the United States are expressing concern over the dramatic rise in cancers of the head and neck, which, studies are indicating, are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) being transmitted through oral sex.

About 2,000 cases of head and neck cancers are diagnosed each year in Canada and about 1,500 of these are caused by HPV, transmitted through oral sex, reported CTV News medical specialist Avis Favaro earlier this week. 

Studies in the United States indicate that HPV is now the leading cause of head and neck cancers at 64 percent, even rising above smoking, tobacco chewing, and drinking.

While HPV is best known as the cause of cervical cancer in women, doctors are saying that the new trend of head and neck cancers is surprising and concerning.  Young people, they say, are unaware that oral sex is not safe and the result is that more and more of them are contracting HPV-related cancer through oral sex.  The virus, contracted during the teen years or early twenties, can often remain dormant for decades.

“Younger people, that are healthy, that are non-smokers and non-drinkers are developing cancers of the tonsil and the back of the tongue,” said head and neck surgeon Dr. Anthony Nichols of the London Health Sciences Center in Ontario. 

“The more oral sexual encounters you have, the more likely you are to develop HPV-related oralpharyngeal cancer,” said Dr. Marina Salvadori, a paediatric infectious diseases expert at the London Health Science Center.

The rates, said Dr. Nichols, are increasing by 3 percent each year.  “Three per cent a year in 10 years – that is about 30 per cent each decade. In cancer terms, that is huge,” said Nichols.

In the United States, researchers have found a 225 percent increase in oral cancer from 1974 to 2007, predominantly in white males, reported Dr. Maura Gillison of Ohio State University, who has been researching HPV and cancer for 15 years

“When you compare people who have an oral infection or not … the single greatest factor is the number of partners on whom the person has performed oral sex,” said Dr. Gillison at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington this week.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, “HPV has now been shown to be sexually transmitted between partners and is conclusively implicated in the increasing incidence of young nonsmoking oral cancer patients … Based on recent data, it appears that in people under the age of 50, HPV-associated oral cancers may even be replacing tobacco as the primary causative agent in the initiation of the disease process.”

“Teens really have no idea that oral sex is related to any outcome like STIs (sexually transmitted infections), HPV, chlamydia, and so on,” said Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California San Francisco, who has studied teenagers’ attitudes and sexual behaviors.

According to Halpern-Felsher’s studies, young people view oral sex as “less risky” and say it is “more prevalent” among teens and 20-year-olds.

While vaccines are being developed and approved in the United States for cervical cancer which may be of use in types of HPV head and neck cancers, doctors warn that research has still not determined the effect on patients five years down the road or later.

“We know from all of the very good modeling studies that have been done throughout the world that if the vaccine does not last for a minimum of 15 years, cervical cancer will not be prevented, it will only be postponed,” she said.

Doctors and researchers are telling practitioners, educators, and parents they must inform young people of the huge risks of oral sex and the dangerous long-term effects.


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