News: The link between oral sex and cancer

You’ve probably heard of HPV – human pappilomavirus. Hell, you may even have had it. Or you may have it now without realising it (insert slightly ominous music here).

HPV is the sexually transmitted virus that causes genital warts that can also lead to cervical cancer.

The HPV vaccine, Gardisil, was developed by former Australian of the Year Professor Ian Frazer and since 2007 the Australian Government has vaccinated teenage girls against this virus while they’re at school, the idea being that they’re immunised before they begin sexual activity.

So far so good.

The rate of HPV infection has dropped dramatically since the vaccine program began. That means fewer girls and women will develop cervical cancer. Fewer girls and women will have their fertility affected. Fewer girls and women will die.

But what’s only recently come to light is that HPV can also cause other types of cancer in both girls and boys including cancer of the throat, mouth and tonsils.

In fact, some studies have suggested that HPV beats out tobacco as the leading cause of throat cancer around the world.

The Cancer Council says:

HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection which usually causes no symptoms and goes away by itself, but can sometimes cause serious illnesses. Almost all cases of genital warts and cervical cancer are due to HPV. There are many different HPV types, which are considered either ‘low risk’ or ‘high risk’.

Four out of five people have at least one type of HPV at some time in their lives. It is sometimes called ‘the common cold’ of sexual activity. HPV infects both men and women. The virus is transferred from one person to the other through sexual intimate contact, usually without the person ever knowing it.

You can be exposed to HPV the first time sexual activity occurs, from only one sexual partner.

The types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer and genital warts are spread through genital-skin to genital-skin contact (not just penetrative sex). The virus enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin.

Condoms offer some but not total protection from HPV, as they don’t cover all of the genital skin. They do offer protection from many other sexually transmitted infections though, and help prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Australia’s Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek, has just announced that teenage boys are going to start receiving this vaccination too – so we asked her to explain to us, what’s going on and why. Here’s what she had to tell Mamamia readers:

HPV – the virus responsible for genital warts – is really common with about 80 % of Australians having at least one strain during their lifetime. HPV is also related to several particularly nasty cancers.

Health Minister, Tanya Plibersek

There is an established link between HPV and cervical cancer, penile cancer, head and neck cancers and others.  Protecting against HPV will eventually save many lives.

Vaccinating boys will protect our sons, but it will also lead to better protection for our daughters. As the rate of HPV in the community decreases the likelihood of being exposed to the virus reduces: we’re better protecting whole generations including those people who missed out on the vaccination.

We immunise both boys and girls for rubella (german measles) to protect unborn babies from birth defects. We’ve managed to go from 5,000 cases of rubella in 1995 to about one rubella related birth defect a year more recently, to none since 2007.

If your son is starting high school next year, he can get the Gardasil® vaccine for free through a school-based program. Older boys under 15 will also be able catch up next year and the year after.

To be effective, both boys and girls have to be immunised before they are sexually active. It’s of little, or no use, after. To get the maximum protection, both young men and women should have all three doses in a six month period.

You can read more about HPV and the Gardisil vaccine here:

Have you or someone you know had the Gardisil vaccine? Does knowing the connection between HPV and these other types of cancer make you re-think your sexual activity?