Human papilloma virus (HPV)-associated head and neck cancers are on the increase, particularly in young white men. Recently, researchers have revealed that oral HPV infection is influenced by lifestyle choices, such as smoking and sexual practices, supporting the idea that the U.K. should consider vaccinating boys against HPV.
“In the UK, we only vaccinate 12-13 year old girls with the HPV jab to prevent them from picking up the high-risk strains of HPV when they become sexually active, which hopefully will prevent in girls all HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer,” Dr. Gillian Knight, head of biosciences at the University of Derby, who led the study, said in a press release. “We do not vaccinate boys even though they have the same risk of contracting HPV infection as women and a recently identified risk — higher than in women — to head and neck cancer. Patients presenting at head and neck clinics with HPV-associated cancers are steadily increasing, particularly in white males under the age of 40.
“The reason why men in the UK are not given the vaccine is that rates of HPV head and neck cancer are currently not as high as cervical cancer rates, but as the numbers of HPV head and neck cancer increase, there is a call that the UK follow other countries,” he added.
HPV infection is commonly associated with the development of cervical cancer, and few people know that the virus can cause other cancers, including head and neck cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, skin cancer, and, possibly, cancer of the esophagus.
HPV infections are spread through touch, meaning that genital HPV can affect the mouth and throat through certain behaviors, such as oral sex.
“HPV is a very common infection, with around 80% of adults being exposed to a genital HPV infection by their mid-twenties,” Knight said.
He and his team developed a questionnaire to establish the presence of the virus among young people, known to be at high risk of contracting genital HPV infection, and to examine its association with certain lifestyle habits.
The study questioned 124 people, ages 18-24, about their lifestyle choices, including smoking habits, relationship status, sexual orientation, and number of sexual partners. Each participant was underwent a mouth swab to detect the presence of HPV infection.
Results showed that 4 percent of the participants had a detectable HPV infection, mostly smokers. Although the study’s sample was small, the researchers claim their results are consistent with prior studies conducted in the U.S., demonstrating that sexual practices and smoking habits can influence oral HPV infection.
Researchers at Derby now plan “to investigate the rates of HPV infection in patients attending the head and neck clinics to determine the rates of oral HPV infection in a wider age range,” Knight said.