Emerging cancer ‘epidemic’ linked to virus

Teenage vaccination to be discussed at Galway conference

Medical experts have warned of an emerging “epidemic” in head and neck cancers in the US and western Europe, linked to a sexually-transmitted virus.

Men are three times more likely than women to be affected by the condition associated with the human papilloma virus (HPV), according to the organisers of an international symposium on the subject at NUI Galway (NUIG) next month.

Such is the “dramatic” rise in cases that it could surpass cervical cancer by 2020, the conference organisers state.

Health authorities may have to consider vaccinating teenage boys against the virus, similar to the vaccination programmes offered to girls to protect against cervical cancer.


Prof Ivan Keogh, of NUIG's otorhinolaryngology department and consultant otolaryngologist at Galway University Hospitals, says that there is little public awareness of head and neck cancer, although it is "almost as common" as cervical and prostate cancers and melanoma.

“Traditionally, tongue and tonsil cancers were identified with heavy smoking and drinking, and cases often presented very late, whereas the profile is changing,” he explains.

“It is now being identified in younger males, and linked to the HPV virus – but the good news is that these cases have a better outcome with less severe treatment if picked up on time,” he says.

Prof Keogh, who is chairing next month’s NUIG symposium, said that the American Cancer Society was taking it seriously enough to describe it as an emerging “epidemic”.

HPV is a family of more than 100 viruses, and the subtypes 16 and 18 associated with cervical cancer are also “causal subtypes” in head and neck cancer, he says.

The increased incidence of cases has been tracked back to the 1970s, and there is a “soft association” with marijuana use in some of the research literature on the condition.

Australia has already introduced a vaccination programme to protect against HPV in young males, Prof Keogh notes.

US experts Dr Sara Pai and Dr William Westra, both from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, are among keynote speakers at the symposium, which will discuss latest research in diagnosing, treating and managing the cancers.

Prof Terry Jones of the University of Liverpool and Dr Mererid Evans of theVelindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff, Wales, will discuss the British perspective.

Other leading national and international epidemiologists, pathologists, head and neck cancer clinicians, health economists and decision-makers will debate current and future international best practice.

The concluding address will be delivered by Dr Brenda Corcoran of the Health Service Executive’s national immunisation office.

The symposium on May 17th is jointly organised by NUIG's Academic Department of Otorhinolaryngology and School of Economics, and funded by the Health Research Board as part of its Knowledge Exchange and Dissemination Scheme.

The full programme is on conference.i e