Study Links Increase in Oral Cancers in Men to HPV

The rate of oral cancer in men under the age of 45 is rising and a new study links the increase to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Although the overall incidence of head and neck cancers has fallen in the United States and the rate of oropharyngeal (tonsil and base of tongue) cancers is stagnant in females, it appears to be rising in younger men, according to a review published in the Oct. 1 issue of Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Cancers of the head and neck, which include cancers of the larynx, nasal passages/nose, oral cavity, pharynx and salivary glands, account for 3 percent of all newly diagnosed cancers in the U.S. But men are three times more likely to be diagnosed with these cancers than women, the new study concluded.

In their review, Erich M. Sturgis, M.D., M.P.H. and Paul Cinciripini, Ph.D. of the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, conclude that the stagnant incidence rates of oropharyngeal cancers, particularly cancers of the tonsil and base of tongue, in the face of declines in tobacco use are likely due to the rising prevalence of oropharyngeal exposure to HPV.

The two believe use of the HPV vaccination in men may reverse this trend.

Of the estimated 45,000 new cases of head and neck cancers expected this year, approximately 10,000 are cancers of the pharynx (chiefly the oropharynx). Though the prognosis for these cancers is excellent when caught early, more than half of them are caught in the advanced stages when the prognosis is much worse, making prevention critical to saving lives, the authors said.

“While the cervical cancer and dysplasia prevention policy of HPV16/18 vaccination of young women and adolescent females are commended, we fear that vaccination programs limited to females will only delay the potential benefit in prevention of HPV16/18 associated oropharyngeal cancers, which typically occur in men,” the authors wrote.

The authors said that the rapid study of the safety of these vaccines in males is needed.