• 5/21/2004
  • Houston, Texas

Studies Link Oral Sex To Cancer

AIDS has been known for a long time as a sexually transmitted virus. Now, doctors are warning about a new virus that causes cancer and is spread through sexual contact, News2Houston reported Thursday. It’s called human papillomavirus, also known as HPV. Out of the hundreds of different strains of human papillomavirus, doctors said No. 16 causes cervical cancer. Approximately 20 percent of people have a type of HPV at any one time, according to statistics. That means two of every 10 people are active carriers. “The human papillomavirus is very common today because of sexual practices,” said Dr. Randal Weber, a head and neck surgeon at M.D. Anderson Hospital. “It is human-to-human contact and exchange of bodily fluids — that’s the way this is transmitted.”

Now doctors like Erich Sturgis at M.D. Anderson Hospital said it is also the culprit in another cancer. “The virus that is likely associated with head and neck cancer is the same virus associated with cervical cancer in women,” Sturgis said. “Is this theory that you are speaking of or is it accepted in the medical community?” asked News2Houston’s Krista Moreno. “I think it is accepted in the field of individuals who work in head and neck cancers, and I think it is also accepted in the field of individuals who work in human papillomavirus. But it is just not common knowledge among most physicians,” said Dr. Maura Gillison, with Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center. Gillison conducted a groundbreaking study that linked HPV 16 to cancers found in the back of the tongue and throat. “The first important thing to do when you’re concerned about the virus being associated with cancer is to prove in very detailed ways the virus is there,” Gillison said. Gillison did, and now other studies are finding the same thing.

“It must be in the mucus and it is transmitted to the throat,” Sturgis said. Consider the statistics. Three percent of the U.S. population gets oral cancers. Most are in their late 50s and 60s. Most are also smokers or drinkers. That is not always true of HPV cancer patients. They tend to be younger and not all of them smoke or drink. Researchers are still collecting data to determine how many cases of oral cancer can be linked to HPV No. 16. “Those patients have a higher reported rate of sexual exposure, unprotected sex, oral genital sex. All the things that go for risk of sexually transmitted disease — that is probably the strongest evidence for this,” Sturgis said. “We found that having HPV in your oral cavity was related to your behavior. Things like lifetime sexual partners and having oral sexual partners an individual had was what put them at risk,” Gillison said. “I think the general public would be surprised to learn that you can indeed catch cancer from sexual activity. How do you explain that to people who may be surprised to learn that?” Marino asked Gillison. “A lot of people aren’t aware that increasing your number of sexual partners puts you at risk. But the fact of the matter is the majority of people infected by human papillomavirus do clear up (and don’t transmit it to others), so the big question now in human papillomavirus research is, ‘How do you identify the people who are at risk for not clearing the virus infection, and who are at risk for developing cancer because of that?'” Gillison said.

Brian Hill, the founder of the Oral Cancer Foundation, and a man who neither drinks nor smokes, said he did not know how he got oral cancer. “Oral cancer took me by surprise,” Hill said. He said these studies might offer the answer. “Public awareness of this issue is the next step now that the link has been identified. That needs to be combined with an increased diligence about screening of patients by dentists and primary care physicians, particularly those patients that they may have omitted from their opportunistic screening efforts because they were not tobacco users.”

“The protection afforded by a condom isn’t sufficient,” Gillison said. Gillison and Sturgis said the best protection is to be aware. “Especially women being aware if they have a history of abnormal Pap smears for a period of time, you know, their sexual partner should be aware of that. Possibly, this may be a risk factor — oral contact, oral genital contact may be a risk factor for these people to get throat cancer,” Sturgis said.

There is no cure for HPV, but there are HPV vaccines in the works. Doctors said the largest source of HPV 16 is found in a woman’s cervix, but it is passed back and forth between men and women. Research also showed those with HPV 16 cancers tend to have a better survival rate than other cancers.

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