In a disturbing new finding, scientists warn that a virus spread during oral sex is now the main cause of throat cancer in people under the age of 50, outstripping tobacco as the major culprit. The human papilloma virus, spread during unprotected sex, is mostly known as the cause of 70 percent of cervical cancers, but it can also lead to other cancers, like throat cancer. A vaccine against some strains of the virus has been administered to young women and girls since 2008, and doctors have recommended that boys be vaccinated too.
This is particularly disturbing because of the discussion recently of young people’s attitudes toward oral sex, which can often be casual, to the point where many people don’t even consider oral sex to be “sex,” per se. Only about 20 percent of college students who participated in a 2007 survey considered oral-genital contact to be sex, as opposed to the majority, which classed penile-vaginal and penile-anal contact as “sex.” The way that people think about these different interactions has obvious and serious implications for how likely they are to use protection.
This has implications for the spread of viruses like HPV. “What is most strongly linked to oral HPV infection is the number of sexual partners someone has had in their lifetimes, in particular the number of individuals on whom they have performed oral sex,” explained one of the researchers. “The higher the number of partners that you’ve had, the greater the odds that you’d have an oral infection.”
But if young people don’t even consider oral sex to be sex, they are far less likely to weigh the implications of unprotected oral-genital contact. It’s especially troubling because HPV often does not have symptoms. The vaccine, however, is a promising solution. Although researchers are not sure what impact it will have on the oral cancers caused by strains of HPV, they’re hopeful:
“We don’t know from strict scientific evidence whether the vaccine will protect from oral HPV infections that lead to cancer. Those of us in the field are optimistic it will – the vaccines in every anatomical site looked at so far have been shown to be extraordinarily effective, about 90 per cent effective, at preventing infections.”
There are two clear actions that we can take from this information: first, to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated for HPV (and to make sure that the vaccines are affodable and accessible), and to engage in wider education about sex that ensures that young and old people alike are aware of the risks posed by unprotected oral sex. This means, once again, moving away from programs that privilege vaginal intercourse above all other kinds of sex, and giving people the tools and information that they need to make responsible sexual decisions.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.