January 30, 2012 — About 7% of U.S. teens and adults carry the human papillomavirus in their mouths, which might explain increases in mouth and throat cancer rates during the last 25 years, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Los Angeles Times reports (Roan, Los Angeles Times, 1/27). Although mouth and throat cancers are also linked to chronic alcohol use and tobacco use, those types of cancer cases have been declining, while HPV-related cases have increased (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 1/26).
The study -- led by the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center -- is the first to examine the prevalence of oral HPV infection in U.S. residents (Roan, Los Angeles Times, 1/27). Researchers assessed data from oral-fluid samples of more than 5,000 people ages 14 through 69 who participated in a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Washington Times, 1/26).
The overall rate of oral HPV was 6.9%. By comparison, the rate of genital HPV among women in their 20s can be as high as 42%, according to the Los Angeles Times. Twenty percent of people with more than 20 sexual partners had oral HPV, compared with 4% of people who said they had never had oral sex, researchers noted.
Oral HPV rates also varied by sex, with rates of 10.1% among men and 3.6% among women. By age, the highest rate was among people in their early 60s, at 11.4% (Los Angeles Times, 1/27).
The study found that the most common strain of oral HPV was HPV-16, a type known to cause various cancers (Washington Times, 1/26). According to the New York Times' "Well," fewer than 10,000 cases of HPV-16-related throat cancers are diagnosed each year, suggesting that most people with the infection do not develop cancer. The study found that about 1% of people with oral HPV -- or about two million people -- had HPV-16 (O'Connor, "Well," New York Times, 1/26).
The findings indicate that HPV is unlikely to spread through casual contact and kissing and that most oral HPV is tied to oral sex. According to the Los Angeles Times, many people think oral sex is less risky than intercourse, but many sexually transmitted infections can be transmitted through the mouth. Fred Wyand, director of the HPV Resource Center at the American Social Health Association, said, "There is a strong association [between HPV and] sexual behavior, and that has important implications for public health officials who teach sexual education" (Los Angeles Times, 1/27).
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership