Insight News

Wednesday
Nov 26th

Health In Perspective: The oral sex, cancer connection

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One of the most striking recent medical developments is difficult to talk about, but it’s timely and important. Cancers of the tongue and throat, all categorized as oropharyngeal cancers, are appearing at an epidemic rate! These cancer types were previously seen almost exclusively in older people who smoked and drank to excess. This is no longer true. Now the most common cause of cancer of the tonsil and tongue is Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). That’s right, the sexually transmitted disease. And it is occurring in ever younger people of all socioeconomic classes. But now comes the squeamish part. The increased rate of this cancer directly parallels the evolution in sexual practices that have occurred within our society over the past 40 years. The risk factor most strongly associated with this cancer is a history of performing oral sex and oral-anal contact. That’s because the tonsils in the back of the throat are fertile ground for this virus. What’s truly frightening is that confidential surveys confirm that oral sex is now a popular activity, even for kids in their early teens. Genital HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. About 20 million Americans ages 15 to 49 currently have HPV. And at least half of all sexually active men and women get genital HPV at some time in their lives. Yet many young people mistakenly think oral sex is a “safe” sexual practice. That likely explains why this cancer is at epidemic levels.

Human Papilloma Virus exists in multiple forms called types. The most virulent is type 16 (HPV16) which causes the majority of cervical cancers as well as many colon and rectal cancers. The recognition of this link between HPV infection and these cancers was the basis for the urgent development of an effective vaccine, the first being Gardasil, and the latest Cervarix.

Unfortunately a virus that’s been the source of so many cancers below the belt is now causing an epidemic of cancers in the mouth and throat.

The only good news - the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine includes protection from HPV16, the type most frequently found in oral tumor cells. The results of studies of populations of vaccinated young people show a remarkable degree of protection from cervical and anal cancers and genital warts. By extension, experts project that the vaccine will also prevent many HPV-related oral cancers. So called “herd Immunity” may also offer protection to individuals within a heavily vaccinated community to those not immunized. This is because a lower incidence of those with HPV makes spread of the cancer causing virus less likely amongst those within the local “herd”. However, direct individual vaccination is still the best means of protection.

Nonetheless, conversations with parents regarding administering this vaccine to their kids can be awkward. Nobody expects their kids to ever be involved with this kind of activity, so “they shouldn’t need it” the argument goes. But what about potential future sexual partners, or future spouses with a secret past? There is also mounting worrisome evidence that this infection can also be spread by open-mouth kissing. Think your kid will never do that?

The HPV vaccine has recently been recommended by the FDA for both males and females starting around the 10th birthday. Most insurers who have covered this vaccine in the past only for females will now likely cover it for males as well.

As a parent I understand there are moral, ethical, and even political arguments for and against giving your kids this vaccine. But let’s remember this vaccine is not about sex, it’s about cancer, a bad, disfiguring, painful, potentially deadly cancer.

Here’s what I and my wife have told our four kids already - sex is a special bonding activity that is best reserved for your lifelong spouse. That is the safest way to keep such horrible things like cancer of the cervix or throat out of your future. We have also taught them that mistakes happen, and we are all capable of making bad choices.

Because of this, we have chosen to vaccinate all of our kids.

Dr. John K. Frederick, is a Family Medicine physician. He is also Director of Social Media and Network Development for Premier Family Physicians in Austin, Texas. He blogs at DrFrederickssecondopinion.blogspot.com and you may follow him on Twitter @DRJFrederick.



 

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