Washington: A prolonged sore throat once was considered a cancer worry mainly for smokers and drinkers. Today there's another risk: A sexually transmitted virus is fueling a rise in oral cancer.
The HPV virus is best known for causing cervical cancer. But it can cause cancer in the upper throat, too, and a new study says HPV-positive tumors now account for a majority of these cases of what is called oropharyngeal cancer.
If that trend continues, that type of oral cancer will become the main HPV-related cancer in the US within the decade, surpassing cervical cancer, researchers from Ohio State University and the National Cancer Institute report on Monday.
"There is an urgency to try to figure out how to prevent this," says Dr Amy Chen of the American Cancer Society and Emory University, who was not part of the new research.
While women sometimes get oral cancer caused by the HPV, the risk is greatest and rising among men, researchers reported. No one knows why, but it begs the question of whether the vaccine given to girls and young women to protect against cervical cancer also might protect against oral HPV.
HPV vaccination is approved for boys to prevent genital warts and anal cancer, additional problems caused by human papillomavirus. But protection against oral HPV hasn't been studied in either gender, says Dr Maura Gillison, a head-and-neck cancer specialist at Ohio State and senior author of the new research. That's important, because it's possible to have HPV in one part of the body but not the other, she says.
A spokeswoman for Merck & Company, maker of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, said the company has no plans for an oral cancer study. Monday's research was funded by the NCI and Ohio State. Gillison has been a consultant to Merck.
There are nearly 10,000 new cases of oropharyngeal cancer a year, and overall incidence has risen by 28 percent since 1988 even as other types of head-and-neck cancer have been declining.