Skip to content
News / March 3, 2008

Oral sex a factor in oral cancer increase

by Guy Hiscott

The cases of oral cancer caused by a virus transmitted during oral sex appear to have increased drastically over the last 30 years, according to a study by US researchers.

The number of tongue, mouth and throat cancers due to the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV), which can also cause cervical cancer in women, rose by about a third from 1973 to 2004, say researchers.

The team – led by Maura Gillison at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US – studied trends in oral cancers recorded by US National Cancer Institute registries.

Earlier work had established a link between certain strains of the common sexually transmitted virus and oral cancer.

The latest study, which looked at nearly 46,000 cases, is the first to quantify an increase in mouth and throat cancers due to sexual activity.

‘What we do know is that the prevalence of HPV is high, particularly among young people and this shouldn’t be a surprise given that, since the sexual revolution, people have been having more sexual partners,’ a New Scientist article quoted Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK.

The rise was largest among young white males, suggesting this group is more likely to have oral sex at a younger age now than it was 20 years ago, says Gillison’s team.

Although, oral cancers linked to HPV infection have risen, the study notes the incidence of oral cancers in parts of the mouth or throat not linked to HPV infection remained constant until 1982, and then started to decline.

Gillison called for a need to consider giving boys the HPV vaccine, to protect them from the disease.

A Merck vaccine is presently licensed for use in young women and girls to protect them against the most common cervical cancer-causing strains of HPV.

‘We need to start having a discussion about those cancers other than cervical cancer that may be affected in a positive way by the vaccine,’ Gillison said.

The study is published in the journal of Clinical Oncology.