About one in nine American men aged 18 to 69 — 11 million total — have oral human papillomavirus, an illness that can lead to head, neck and throat cancers, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Researchers from the University of Florida said that the infection is most common in gay or bisexual men, those who have had multiple oral sex partners, or men who also have genital HPV. The most common kind of cancer caused by HPV — one that’s far more common in men than women — is oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, a head and neck cancer that can occur in the oral cavity, nose, pharynx, larynx (voice box), trachea or esophagus, all at once.
“The incidence of this cancer has increased 300% in the last 20 years,” lead researcher Ashish Deshmukh told CBS News.
Using data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2011-2014, the study found that nearly 12% of men and 3% of women had oral HPV. It also saw that about two million men — six times more than women — were high-risk for HPV 16, a specific strain of the virus that causes most of its associated cancers.
The study notes that there is an effective HPV vaccine for both boys and girls but the number of young men who receive the shot — 35% in 2014 — is much lower than young women — 57%. Also, since the average age of the most at-risk men is older than 26, they’re too old for the vaccine or have already been exposed to HPV in their lives.
“We’ve got to vaccinate young boys, because (the) vaccine has the potential to decrease cancer risk,” Deshmukh said. “In the short term, we need to find alternative prevention methods, for example, screening people and identifying precancerous lesions that can be treated.”
Only about 35% of young boys had an HPV shot in 2014, according to the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
It’s recommended that pre-teens, aged 11 or 12, get the HPV vaccine (two shots, six to 12 months apart) before they become sexually active, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Genital HPV — which has infected 45% of men and 40% of women — is more common than its oral counterpart but, like oral HPV, the genital virus also causes several kinds of cancer, like anal, penial and vaginal. It’s responsible for 70% of all causes of cervical cancer. The HPV vaccination is effective for both types.
“Fortunately, we have a very effective vaccine,” George Washington University global health professor Patti Gravitt told the news site. “The data are remarkable. Rarely in a vaccine have you seen such strong effectiveness … it’s safe. We should be doing a better job of protecting people from HPV.”