Vaccinating teenage boys against the human papillomavirus (HPV) could save millions of health care dollars by preventing oral cancer.
Most know of HPV as the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, but it has been linked to a number of other cancers, including oropharyngeal cancer, which occurs in the throat, around the tonsils and back of the tongue.
Currently, it’s estimated that 70 percent of all head and neck cancers are caused by HPV, likely spread by oral sex. According to experts, by 2020 oropharyngeal will beat out cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related cancer.
“There is a strong gender difference,” says Dr. Maura Gillison, professor of medicine at The Ohio State University — “…men are at a three to five fold increased risk compared to women.” It gained national attention in 2013 when actor Michael Douglas announced that he was being treated for throat cancer, likely caused by HPV.
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. Experts estimate that over 80 percent of sexually active people will become infected, and the virus is often asymptomatic, meaning many spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected.
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend both boys and girls get the three-part vaccine at age 11-12, although it is approved for ages 9-26. While it’s unlikely that the HPV vaccine will be marketed as an “oral cancer” vaccine without further research, the fact remains that it already offers protection against cervical cancer, and high chance that it protects against head and neck cancers too.