A silent epidemic of cancer is spreading among men

Henrietta Strickland
October 20, 2017

Men who smoke and perform oral sex with five or more partners have the highest risk of developing a type of head and neck cancer triggered by the human papilloma virus (HPV), according to a new study.

Researchers analysed data from 13,089 people, aged 20-69, taking part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) who had been tested for oral HPV infection. Women with the lowest risk were those who had one or no oral sex partners and did or did not smoke.

The researchers say one of the purposes of the study was to determine whether it would be worthwhile to screen an entire population of patients for oropharyngeal cancer risk. According to the NHS, around 25% of mouth and 35% of throat cancers are HPV-related and, most of the time, the types of HPV found in the mouth are sexually transmitted.

Women ages 20 to 69, for example, had a frequency of infection of just over 1 per cent, compared to 6 per cent for men ages 20 to 69. "Among men who did not smoke, cancer-causing oral HPV was rare among everyone who had less than five oral-sex partners, although the chances of having oral HPV infection did increase with number of oral sexual partners, and with smoking".

Women with 10 or more lifetime oral sex partners had a relatively low, 3.0 per cent prevalence of infection, whereas for men with 10 or more lifetime oral sex partners the figure was 14.4 per cent.

"Most people perform oral sex in their lives, and we found that oral infection with cancer-causing HPV was rare among women regardless of how many oral sex partners they had".

Further research to explore oral HPV infection in young healthy men is now being conducted. Men ages 50 to 59 were most likely to have an infection (8.1 percent) of any age group. Each year in the US there are about 12,000 cases of these HPV-associated cancers, more than 80 percent of them in men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Risk of infection rose further among men who smoked and had two to four oral sex partners, with a prevalence of 7.1 per cent, rising to 7.4 per cent among those who did not smoke but who had five or more oral sex partners. The prevalence of oral HPV infection in women was 1.5 percent in those with two or more oral sex partners.

Infection with any potentially cancer-causing HPV type is not as predictive of cancer risk as it may seem, the researchers note.

"For most people these data should be very reassuring, as they show that their risk of oropharyngeal cancer is very low", D'Souza says.

D'Souza, Fakhry and their colleagues in this field are working to develop tests that are much more predictive of HPV-oropharyngeal cancer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are roughly 3,200 new cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed in women and about 13,200 diagnosed in men each year in the U.S. There are now no formal tests to screen people for this type of cancer (though a quick visual exam is typically part of the a regular dental checkup).

The new study's findings suggest it is crucial for boys to get the HPV vaccine.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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