The human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, is a common virus that can potentially cause very serious diseases such as cervical cancer. Now, new research has found that HPV can also be carried within the mouth, and may be present there in approximately seven percent of Americans.1
The study, which took place at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus, focused on information from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2009 to 2010. The researchers not only went over the questionnaires and physical exam findings for 5,579 participants between the ages of 14 and 69, but also the results of an oral rinse that enabled the extraction of mouth skin cells to test for the presence of HPV. This is similar to the method used to test for HPV in the cervix.
Oral HPV was detected in 6.9 percent of the volunteers. This is nowhere near the rates found for genital HPV infection, which is present in as many as 42 percent of twenty-something women. So, if the numbers are comparatively low, why is this necessarily a big deal? Because oral HPV infections may very well have a lot to do with the rise in cases of mouth and throat cancer over the past couple of decades.
There is no doubt that HPV, although often asymptomatic and not dangerous, can cause cancer. HPV is responsible for the majority of cases of cervical cancer, causing an estimated 4,220 deaths in the United States annually, according to information from the National Cancer Institute.2 HPV has also been linked to penile, anal, and vulvar cancer. And a 2011 study at the National Cancer Institute and Johns Hopkins associated nearly three-quarters of new diagnoses of oral cancer with HPV infection, which makes it the number one cause of oral cancer, ahead of even tobacco.3
Approximately 80 percent of American teens and adults have contracted HPV at some point in their sexually active lives. As with other viral infections, the body can usually fight it off and eliminate it. However, in cases of lingering or recurrent infections, cancer may begin to develop.
HPV does not invade the mouth due to kissing another infected individual; it is spread via oral sex. Many people, especially teenagers, consider oral sex a safe alternative to intercourse since there is no chance of getting pregnant. However, some incorrectly believe that the disease risk is lower as well, which is simply untrue for AIDS, STDs, and now, obviously, HPV. Whether as a “safe sex” practice or just for fun, approximately 90 percent of adults surveyed in 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported having oral sex, along with approximately 25 percent of 15-year-old boys and girls.4
The medical community pushes the Gardasil vaccine as the answer to the HPV problem, recommending that “children” as young as 11 get the shots. It started as a vaccine for girls and women, ostensibly to protect them from cervical cancer. However, enterprising manufacturer Merck, always looking to expand the market, has suggested that it might benefit boys as well in the prevention of warts and the relatively rare penile cancer. Now this latest HPV research will probably have the drug reps in a frenzy, influencing pediatricians and internists to vaccinate everyone possible to prevent oral cancer.
Gardasil has proven effective in some studies if there is no HPV already present. However, it does not confer protection against every strain of HPV, leaving open the possibility that those strains it doesn’t kill will only get stronger and harder to eliminate. We also don’t know just how long a Gardasil vaccination lasts or what sort of long-term effects it might have. And there have also been a number of serious adverse events associated with Gardasil. 5,6
Ultimately, outside of abstinence, the best form of protection from HPV may just be practicing truly safe sex. Using condoms, limiting your number of partners, and now maybe steering away from oral sex unless you’re absolutely sure of your partner are going to be the ways to stay sexually healthy these days.
1 Roan, Shari. “HPV study finds 7% of U.S. teens, adults carry virus in mouths.” Los Angeles Times. 27 January 2012. Accessed 12 March 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jan/27/health/la-he-oral-hpv-20120127>.
2 “What are the key statistics about cervical cancer?” American Cancer Society. 18 January 2012. Accessed 12 March 2012. <http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CervicalCancer/DetailedGuide/cervical-cancer-key-statistics>.
3 Chaturvedi, AK; Engels, EA; Pfeiffer, RM; et al. “Human papillomavirus and rising oropharyngeal cancer incidence in the United States.” Journal of Clinical Oncology. 10 November 2011. Accessed 12 March 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21969503>.
4 “Key statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 20 May 2011. Accessed 12 March 2012. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/abc_list_s.htm#oralsexmalefemale>.
5 Sharyl Attkisson. “Vaccine Watch: Gardasil Side-Effects?” 8 July 2008. Couric & Co. (Accessed 13 Mar 2012.) <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-500803_162-4240888-500803.html>
6 “Gardasil Side Effects May Be Linked To Blood Clot Lawsuits.” Parker Waichman LLP. (Accessed 13 Mar 2012.) <http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/gardasil_side_effects>