“The term ‘silent epidemic’ has been used,” says Dr. David Bodkin, a board-certified oncology doctor affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. He is talking about the rise of human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers in men.
Dr. Bodkin’s statement is not hyperbole. In fact, studies have revealed an alarming and rapid increase in oral HPV infection between 2011 and 2014, with 11.5 percent of men in the U.S. and 3 percent of women diagnosed as actively infected. This means 11 million men and 3.2 million women carry the virus that could potentially lead to cancer.
HPV is a common virus that spreads through sexual activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some point in their life if they are not vaccinated. The virus usually goes away on its own without causing problems and does not initially cause symptoms, but can lead to cancer later in life.
“The virus can remain present for many years,” Dr. Bodkin says. “It infects the tissues that line the cells, and can cause change in DNA that leads to normal cells becoming cancerous over time. It is thought that it can take 10 to 20 years for the cancer to occur.”
HPV is widely known as the primary cause of cervical cancer in women. However, while cases of cervical cancer have declined, the number of HPV-related oral cancer occurrences in men is growing, though the direct cause of the increase is unknown.
“The rise in diagnosis of HPV-related oral cancers relates to many factors, including sexual practices,” Dr. Bodkin says. “Theories have included an increase in partners practicing oral sex rather than intercourse due to the risks of HIV and pregnancy. Also, the virus may have become more aggressive.”
While an HPV vaccine is available for both boys and girls, only 60 percent of parents have access to or allow their children to be vaccinated. Furthermore, the window of eligibility for the vaccine is adolescence through 26 years old, so many men learn of the danger far too late to be vaccinated.
Those at greatest risk for oral HPV include men who have had multiple sexual partners, men who have sex with men, and smokers of both cigarettes and marijuana. Black men and men who have been diagnosed with genital HPV infection or HIV were also found to have high rates of oral HPV.
Parents can lower their adolescent sons’ risk of HPV infection by getting them vaccinated. Older, sexually active men should use condoms when having sex to protect against HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
According to the CDC, there is no test for HPV in men. However, Dr. Bodkin says that dentists can play a role in reducing the increase in HPV-related oral cancers by routinely looking for changes in the mouth and throat that could indicate HPV infection. Dentists should also talk to parents about the importance of the vaccination, and educate patients about the dangers of smoking in relation to HPV.
Talk to your doctor or your child’s doctor if you have concerns about HPV and HPV-related oral cancers. Prevention options and treatments for health problems caused by HPV are available.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. David Bodkin about the rise in HPV-related oral cancers in men for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.