Oral cancer has long been associated with heavy smoking and heavy drinking and would usually arise later in life. There continues to be a rise in a newer form of cancer caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that is increasingly common in younger adults. This hit close to home recently when I found out that one of my friends has HPV-related cancer and is now undergoing treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. The treatments can be very debilitating and impact a person’s life immensely. The more I read about this topic, the more I believe it is best to have children vaccinated against this type of cancer.
The virus is housed in the mucosal membranes which line the mouth, throat and genital tracts. The highest viral loads tend to live in the cervix and therefore it is believed that men performing oral sex on women probably tend to get exposed to the highest amount of the virus.
Anyone who has ever been sexually active (that is, engaged in skin-to-skin sexual conduct, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex) can get HPV. HPV is easily passed between partners through sexual contact. HPV infections are more likely in those who have many sex partners or have sex with someone who has had many partners. Because the infection is so common, most people get HPV infections shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time. A person who has had only one partner can get HPV.
Someone can have an HPV infection even if they have no symptoms and their only sexual contact with an HPV-infected person happened many years ago.
There are two FDA-approved vaccines — Cervarix and Gardasil — that prevent infection with HPV strains 16 and 18, which are most likely to cause cancer. A new form of Gardasil, approved earlier this year, adds five new high-risk HPV strains to its coverage, for even more cancer protection.
Both boys and girls are supposed to get two doses of the vaccine, starting at age 11 or 12. The CDC reports that only 60 percent of parents are getting their kids vaccinated.
Several HPV tests are currently approved by the FDA for three cervical screening indications: for follow-up testing of women who seem to have abnormal Pap test results, for cervical cancer screening in combination with a Pap test among women over age 30, and for use alone as a first-line primary cervical cancer screening test for women ages 25 and older.
There are no FDA-approved tests to detect HPV infections in men. There are also no currently recommended screening methods similar to a Pap test for detecting cell changes caused by HPV infection in anal, vulvar, vaginal, penile, or oropharyngeal tissues. However, this is an area of ongoing research.
It is my hope that we can all continue to educate ourselves on this topic and do everything in our power to help prevent future occurrences of this disease. Please consider vaccinating your loved one’s.
Steve Cook, DDS