Q: What are oropharyngeal cancers?
A: Oropharyngeal cancers include cancers of the tonsils, the base of the tongue, the palate and the back of the throat. HPV is the cause of 70% of the new cases of oropharyngeal cancers. The frequency of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers is increasing. Most oropharyngeal cancers are associated with high risk 16/18 strains. HPV 16 is the most common strain associated with oropharyngeal cancers. In the past, most people who developed oropharyngeal cancer were elderly, had a history of tobacco and alcohol use and had a form of oropharyngeal cancer not related to HPV. Most people diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancers related to HPV are younger and do not have a history of heavy tobacco or alcohol use.
Q: Why has there been such an increase in the number of oropharyngeal cancers?
A: The vast increase in oropharyngeal cancer incidence rates is due to increased frequency of oral sex over the years. The oropharyngeal cavity is an area in which the HPV virus can thrive. Men are several times more likely to develop this condition than women and also develop a more aggressive form of oropharyngeal cancer than women.
The incidence of oral cancers in men is now greater than the incidence of cervical cancer in women. This is in large part due to the success of screening tests like the Pap smear which allow for the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer in women. There is no effective screening for oropharyngeal cancer at this time.
Q: Will the HPV vaccine help prevent oropharyngeal cancer?
A: The HPV vaccine is expected to have a protective effect against oropharyngeal cancers caused by the same high risk strains that have been demonstrated to effectively decrease the incidence of precancerous cervical lesions in women. The effectiveness of the HPV vaccine against oropharyngeal cancer continues to be studied.