Virus may soon cause more mouth cancers than tobacco


THERE HAS been a sharp rise in the incidence of mouth cancers, with many of these associated with the presence of a virus. The virus is likely being spread as a result of oral sex, according to research by medical specialists.

Teenagers may be at particular risk given the widely held mistaken view that oral sex was safer than vaginal sex. Many teens felt oral sex wasn’t sex at all, a study showed.

The increase in oral cancers, particularly in those under 50, was discussed yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington DC. The session was entitled: Oral Cancer under 50: HPV (human papilloma virus) Overtaking Tobacco? The researchers’ concern was that the numbers of cancers caused by HPV may soon outstrip those caused by tobacco use. The link between HPV and cervical cancer has been known for decades, said Prof Diane Harper, of the University of Missouri, Kansas City. Vaccines against HPV had been developed and are being given to female adolescents to block cervical cancer. Ireland supports such a vaccine programme.

While HPV’s involvement in cervical cancer received widespread research, there had been a 20-year delay in recognising that HPV might have a role in other cancers, particularly oral cancers. “It didn’t get the attention it deserves,” said Prof Maura Gillison of Ohio State University, Columbus.

Oral sex was emerging as a key risk factor for oropharyngeal (mouth and throat) cancers, she said. Having multiple partners who participated in oral sex was an important risk factor, she said. Young white males had seen the most rapid increase in incidence.

Figures for Britain showed that incidence had increased by more than 50 per cent since 1989. Incidence in women had increased at a slower rate. The US had seen a sharper rise with oral cancers up by 225 per cent in recent years, Prof Gillison said. HPV spreads by physical contact and there was little doubt it was implicated in the cancers, she said.

The great worry was that teenagers were increasingly at risk because of their attitude towards oral sex, said Prof Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California, San Francisco, who surveyed 600 teenagers. She said: “The teens don’t consider oral sex to be sex.” Nor did they know it presented a health risk.