“For the first time in history, sex is more dangerous than the cigarette afterward.”
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, yet most infected people aren’t even aware that they have it. And now a new study has shown that approximately half of all adult men are infected with HPV.
The research, which took place at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa, Florida, and was funded by the National Cancer Institute, focused on more than 1,100 men between the ages of 18 and 70.1 The participants were residents of the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, and the mean age among them was 32 years old. They were all HIV-negative and had no history of cancer. Each man underwent an exam and testing for HPV infection every six months for an average two-year period.
The rates of HPV infection discovered were high in men of every age. The findings also showed that the immune systems of older men were typically able to clear up HPV infections faster than those in younger men. And, unsurprisingly, certain strains of HPV that can cause cancer were highest in men with more than one sexual partner at a time. Those volunteers who had intercourse with greater numbers of partners were more likely to have a cancer-causing HPV infection than were those with only one or no recent partners.
HPV is transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex as well as genital-to-genital contact. Warts may be a symptom of HPV, but a great many cases of HPV are completely asymptomatic. A strain of HPV is responsible for the majority of occurrences of cervical cancer in women, as well as some cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, head, and neck. In 2009, approximately 32,000 cases of cancer could be attributed to HPV infections in the United States alone.
And the statistics are only getting worse. New research that took place at Ohio State University in Columbus found that HPV transmission from oral sex is now the number one cause of oral cancers, ahead even of smoking and frequent alcohol use.2 The study linked HPV to 64 percent of oral cancer cases, and men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women.
The researchers also determined that HPV-related oral cancer tends to strike younger people than those oral cancers brought about by tobacco use or drinking. The risks also tend to rise along with the number of sexual partners on whom a subject had performed oral sex. This is especially bad news for the teenagers and twenty-somethings who view oral sex as a safer alternative to genital sex. While obviously the risk of pregnancy is non-existent when only oral sex is taking place, all of the diseases that are transmissible during genital to genital contact are just as transmissible when the contact is oral to genital.
The FDA solution, childhood vaccination, simply doesn’t work. First, vaccination only protects against two of the more than 70 strains of HPV in circulation. And at least 14 of those strains are considered high risk — that is to say, they cause cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer over time if those changes are left untreated. In fact, persistent high-risk HPV (an infection that does not go away) is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer. But even worse, there is strong evidence that the vaccine may wear off in as little as five years, which means that by the time you reach the dangerous years — 18-70 — you’re totally unprotected…if you’re relying on childhood vaccination.
So what do you do to shield yourself from HPV? Obviously abstinence is not a realistic option for most adults. Condom use is associated with a lower rate of cervical cancer, but we don’t know the degree of protection from HPV infection, if any, that they provide. And they certainly don’t help, for most people, when oral sex is involved since most people don’t use them for oral sex. Entering a monogamous relationship, of course, will lower your risk, but only if your partner is HPV-negative. Testing can help catch an HPV-related cancer, but there is no treatment or cure for HPV infection. You just have to get re-tested and wait for it to clear up, which may take up to two years or longer. The safest course nowadays is to slow down, and participate in all forms of sexual activity with more caution and fewer partners. The depressing thing is that almost no one at risk is likely to listen to that advice.
1 Giuliano, Anna R.; Lee, Ji-Hyun; Fulp, William; Villa, Luisa L.; Lazcano, Eduardo; Papenfuss, Mary R.; Abrahamsen, Martha; Salmeron, Jorge; Anic, Gabriella M.; Rollison, Dana E.; Smith, Danelle. “Incidence and clearance of genital human papillomavirus infection in men (HIM): a cohort study.” The Lancet. 01 March 2011. Elsevier Limited. 20 April 2011.
2 Gillison, Maura L. “Oral Sex and Risk for Oral HPV Infections and Oropharyngeal Cancer.” American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting. 20 February 2011. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 23 April 2011. <http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2011/webprogram/Paper2872.html>.