29th Mar 2016

Big rise in oral cancer rates linked to HPV

Big rise in oral cancer

A report in America says there has been a 400 per cent increase in oral cancer, cancers of the mouth and pharynx over the last decade.

The US National Cancer Institute says the rise is primarily due to the human papillomavirus (HPV)and the greatest increase in incidence has been among men aged 55 to 64.

Dr Panos Savvides, leader of the head and neck program at the University of Arizona Cancer Center at St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, is quoted as saying:

“Unlike the average head and neck cancer sufferer in the past whose risk factors included a lifetime of smoking and drinking, today’s patients are a full decade younger on average.”

In the UK, according to a study by Cancer Research UK, mouth cancers are now the tenth most common cancer in men and the fifteenth most common in women – this compares with 13th in men and 17th in women in 2002.

Mouth cancer rates in Britain have risen by about a third over the last decade with nearly 8,000 new cases diagnosed each year – accounting overall for about 2% of all cancer cases in the UK.

The research in America bolsters the case for the HPV vaccine, currently offered only to teenage girls in the UK through their schools as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme, to be extended to adolescent boys as well.

The vaccine is offered primarily to provide 20-year protection against cervical cancer.

But it is clear the benefits that the vaccination also gives against a range of other cancers including mouth cancers means that it should be more widely available.

HPV, a virus that infects the skin and cells linking the body cavities, is extremely common. Its increase has been linked to changing sexual habits.

Up to eight out of 10 people will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. And although there are over a hundred types of HPV, only 13 are linked to cancer.  In many cases the body’s natural defences fight off the infection without the person ever knowing.

But in some cases the infection persists, triggering a series of events that can lead to cancer.

It is those cases we need to fight against and that is why I believe the HPV vaccine is so important – for teenage boys as well as girls.

Several countries, most notably Australia, the US, Austria and parts of Canada, have introduced the vaccination for boys and there is an overwhelming case for Britain to follow suit – not only in terms of reducing human suffering but also because of the savings that will be made in NHS treatment and care for HPV-related diseases.Professor Christopher Nutting, leading London oncologist and specialist in head and neck cancer diagnosis and treatment, discusses the rise in oral cancer.

For more information about Prof Nutting's work please visit the CV page, get in touch or arrange a consultation.