Science had long believed that HPV (Human Papillomavirus) was a female specific disease that presented few symptoms and that men were only potential carriers of the virus. The lack of prevalent & instant symptoms is primarily why there was no real focus on protecting men from getting HPV. All of that is now changing with more research and statistics that prove that HPV can be detrimental to men, especially HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers, also referred to as head and neck cancers.
HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can be transmitted disease that current estimates suggest 79 million individuals currently have. This number only seems to be growing with an estimated 14 million new cases each year. There are more than 40 different types of HPV and many of them fought off easily by the body's’ immune system without causing any health problems. There are certain high-risk strains of HPV that can remain dormant for years, even decades. These previously dormant strains can cause anything from gential warts to cancers.
Oropharyngeal Cancer and Men
With HPV cases constantly on the rise and it’s ability to cause cancer it is no wonder that head and neck cancers are increasing. What is curious though is the rate at which men are suffering from these head and neck cancers compared to women. Men are in fact, 3-5 times more vulnerable to oropharyngeal cancer than women. HPV is associated with 9,000 cases of head and neck cancers in the U.S. each year.
(Click HERE to see potential symptoms of HPV-related Head and Neck Cancer)
Why Men and What Can Be Done?
There are a number of possibilities to explain the vast discrepancy between men and women who develop HPV-related head and neck cancer. One explanation is that men may take longer than women to develop protective antibodies to HPV. There is also no annual screening test for men to determine if they have contracted the HPV virus. Women, on the other hand, are told to get annual pap smears to help detect HPV and pre-cancerous cells that could have been caused by the HPV-virus. “We’re at a huge disadvantage,” said Sikora, who,treats patients at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. “The pap smear, in terms of global health impact, is probably one of the best, most cost-effective things ever invented in terms of just the sheer number of women who have not had cancers because of it. We have nothing like that for men.” Anatomy is to blame as well. While the cervix is easily sampled the tonsils, throat, or back of the tongue are a bit more tricky and scientists have not yet developed a reliable technique for retrieving a representative sample of cells.
Another reason for the influx of men developing head and neck cancer compared to women is the late start men and young boys are getting to the HPV vaccine. In 2007 when the vaccine Gardasil hit the market it was intended primarily to prevent HPV in females (and therefore cervical cancer caused by HPV). Now we know that men can be infected with HPV as well and develop cancer because of it, doctors have started recommending that both young women (up to age 26) and young men (up to age 21) receive the 2-part vaccine. There is much more research to date about the HPV vaccine preventing cervical cancer and very little research about its effectiveness in preventing oropharyngeal cancers. The data that does currently exist suggests that the vaccines will be a very effective intervention.
While there are still generations of men that have been exposed to HPV without the option of having the HPV vaccine who still need to be aware of potential signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, we highly suggest that parents get their children (both male and female) vaccinated against this potentially catastrophic virus.
For more information about HPV or to get an oral cancer screening, contact our office, Noral Dental Associates, P.C. at 317.575.2888.