An alarming new study from Ohio State University linking oral sex with throat cancer could drastically alter our perception of the effects of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV has traditionally been associated with causing cervical cancer in women and to a much lesser extent, anal cancer in men, though new findings show it is also the most common cause of throat cancer, accounting for nearly three-quarters of cases diagnosed between 1984 and 2004.
And the culprit being blamed for the dramatic increase is none other than oral sex. As if men needed another reason not to eat pussy?!
According to the study published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology, HPV-related oral cancer cases rose from 0.8 per 100,000 people in the early 1980s to 2.6 per 100,000 in 2004, a staggering 225% increase. If this trend continues, the number of HPV-strain throat cancer cases will eclipse the number of cervical cancer cases by the end of the decade. For reasons unknown to the scientists, throat cancer cases caused by HPV are much more prevalent in men than women, which could effectively shift the burden of HPV-related cancer from one gender to the other.
Those most of the mass media stories I found focused on oral sex as the villain, Dan Savage pointed out that another exchange of fluids could also be to blame: kissing. The study did not look into whether women who performed oral sex on other women were equally affected.
While this sharp increase is worth noting, it is also important to assert that throat cancer is still relatively uncommon (less than 100,000 cases reported in the United States annually), and the HPV strain is more treatable and has a higher survival rate than the other types of throat cancer. The New York Times reports that “median survival in throat cancer patients with the virus is 131 months; without it, 20 months”.
The silver lining in this whole entire cloud is the vaccine Gardasil that targets two particularly nasty strains of HPV that are responsible for causing at least 70 percent of cervical cancers. As of mid 2008, more than half a million doses of the Gardasil vaccine had been distributed in Canada.
The trick with the vaccine is that it in order to be effective, it must be administered before exposure to the virus, meaning before becoming sexually active. Social conservative groups in the United States are in an uproar that this undermines the abstinence agenda and encourages young women to behave promiscuously.
Gardasil also generated controversy recently when Republican presidential candidate (shudder) Michelle Bachmann went on the Today Show and relayed anecdotal evidence from a mom at a debates, that the vaccine causes mental retardation, a claim that was scientifically debunked almost as soon as the words flew out of her mouth.
“There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement,” said O. Marion Burton, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This is a life-saving vaccine that can protect girls from cervical cancer.”
It is unclear at this time whether Gardasil will be effective in the prevention of throat cancer, though some parents are already choosing to vaccinate their young sons to reduce the risk of anal and penile cancer.
Dan Savage weighed in on the debate in a recent podcast, and I will close with his plea to push for the Gardasil vaccine:
We need to start vaccinating everyone against HPV, not just women, not just girls. Both of the vaccines available for all young womenâ€¦ target the HPV strain linked to these oral cancers in adult men. We know that people are not going to stop having oral sex. We know that people are not going to stop kissing because there’s a tiny risk you may draw the short straw and develop oral cancer.
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