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Increased Throat Cancer Cases Tied to HPV Infection

More whites develop cancers linked to oral sex, but blacks have worse survival rates, study finds
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 26 (HealthDay News) -- The sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) may be behind the sharp rise in cases of throat and mouth cancers among young American adults, researchers say.

In a new study, investigators from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit analyzed U.S. government data and found that cancers of the base of the tongue, tonsils, soft palate and pharynx among adults aged 45 and younger increased 60 percent between 1973 and 2009. Collectively, these cancers are called oropharyngeal cancer.

There was a 113 percent rise in the rate of these cancers among whites, but a 52 percent decrease among blacks during the study period. However, the five-year survival rate for these cancers remains worse for blacks than for whites and other races, the study authors found.

HPV, which can cause genital and anal warts, is the most commonly transmitted sexual infection in the United States. Usually, the immune system clears the infection, but in some cases the virus persists in the body. And persistent infection with certain HPV strains can eventually lead to cancer -- with cervical cancer the best known.

HPV can also invade the mouth during oral sex. Those infections usually cause no symptoms, but a lingering infection with a cancer-linked strain can lead to oropharyngeal cancer.

The topic was given celebrity status this summer when actor Michael Douglas announced that his stage 4 throat cancer was the result of an HPV infection that he got from oral sex.

In a hospital news release on the new research, study lead author Dr. Farzan Siddiqui, director of the Head and Neck Radiation Therapy Program in the department of radiation oncology, said, "The growing incidence in oropharyngeal cancer has been largely attributed to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to an increased transmission of high-risk HPV."

Siddiqui added. "We were interested in looking at people born during that time period and incidence of oropharyngeal cancer. Not only were we surprised to find a substantial increase in young adults with cancer of the tonsils and base of tongue, but also a wide deviation among Caucasians and African Americans with this cancer."

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