US researchers studying the effects of human papilloma virus (HPV), a leading cause of cervical cancer in women, have found a connection between the virus and instances of mouth tumours.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared 1,670 patients who had oral cancers to 1,732 healthy people and HPV was found in a small number of the cancer patients. Those infected carried HPV16, the most common strain of the virus, which in Britain is estimated to infect one fifth of women between 18 and 25.
The study showed that people with mouth tumours containing the HPV16 strain were three times more likely to have had oral sex than those whose tumours did not contain the virus.
Raphael Viscidi, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said that the study is very decisive. “This is a major study in terms of its size,” he says. “I think this will convince people.”
While the US researchers said there was no need for people to alter their behaviour, this was not the line taken by the head of a similar study in Sweden.
Dentist and researcher Kerstin Rosenquist headed a smaller study conducted at the Malmoe University Faculty of Odontology in southern Sweden that showed the same connection between HPV and oral sex. Rosenquist found that 36% of the cancer patients were carriers of HPV while only 1% of the control group had the virus.
She said, “You should avoid having oral sex.”
“In recent years (oral cancer) has been on the rise among young individuals and we don’t know why. But one could speculate that this virus (HPV) is one of the factors,” Rosenquist said.
There is a very promising vaccine that should soon reduce the risk some.