New research shows that throat cancers caused by HPV — usually contracted through oral sex — are on the rise. It's upsetting news, but there's something we can do: start testing the HPV vaccine for throat cancer prevention, and vaccinate boys.
The Times reports on a new study of throat cancer patients from 1984 to 2004. Researchers tested patients' tumors for the presence of HPV — they found it in 16% of patients from the eighties, and 72% of those diagnosed after 2000. Overall, researchers say the incidence of HPV-related throat cancer has grown from 0.8 cases in every 100,000 people in 1988 to 2.6 cases per 100,000 in 2004. That's still pretty rare, but it's a significant jump — and if the growth continues, HPV could be causing more throat cancer than cervical cancer by 2020. No one knows why, but HPV-related throat cancer is much more common in men.
This is scary news, because there's no screening test comparable to the Pap smear for throat cancer. There's hope, though — most throat cancers are caused by HPV type 16, which the vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix protect against. They haven't been specifically tested against throat cancer, but Dr. Kevin J. Cullen of the Greenebaum Cancer Center at the University of Maryland told the Times they probably worked against the disease. He also said boys should be getting the vaccine.
Many have argued in the past that boys should get the anti-HPV shot, but this is some of the best evidence yet that it might directly benefit them, not just their female partners. More research is needed to confirm that the vaccines protect against throat cancer, but if that's definitively shown, it could be a big public-health game-changer. Up until now, the HPV vaccine has been a preventive measure against a problem that's seen as exclusively female, and so it's been bound up in all of America's screwed-up ideas about women and sex — there's the sense, stated or not, that women should just be chaste and then they wouldn't get nasty viruses. But if HPV starts to affect everyone — and there's evidence it already has — then a vaccine for it might suddenly have more popular support. And maybe we could finally see HPV for what it is — an infection that needs prevention, not a mark of moral failure.