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7% of teens, adults carry HPV virus in mouths

A new report reveals startling rates of infection with HPV–the most common sexually transmitted disease among teens and adults in their twenties:

A new study showing an estimated 7% of American teens and adults carry the human papillomavirus in their mouths may help health experts finally understand why rates of mouth and throat cancer have been climbing for nearly 25 years. The evidence makes it clear that oral sex practices play a key role in transmission.

The new data, published online Thursday by the Journal of the American Medical Assn., are the first to assess the prevalence of oral HPV infection in the U.S. population. The findings indicate that the virus is not likely to spread through kissing or casual contact and that most cases of oral HPV can be traced to oral sex, which many Americans mistakenly view as a safe practice.

“There is a strong association for sexual behavior, and that has important implications for public health officials who teach sexual education,” said Dr. Maura L. Gillison of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, who led the study and presented the findings Thursday at a meeting of head and neck cancer researchers and doctors in Phoenix.

Though herpes, HIV and other diseases can be transmitted via oral sex, the practice is often considered a safer alternative to sexual intercourse. A survey released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 90% of adults have had oral sex, along with 27% of 15-year-old boys and 23% of 15-year-old girls.

“I don’t think people think of oral sex in the same way they do with traditional intercourse,” said Fred Wyand, director of the HPV Resource Center at the American Social Health Assn. in Research Triangle Park, N.C. “Sometimes younger people engage in oral sex so they don’t have to worry about pregnancy. They may not even make the link between oral sex and STDs.”

Suspicion among researchers that the behavior could cause oral cancers by transmitting HPV to the mouth has been mounting over the last decade. Initial studies found that patients with oral cancer were far more likely than healthy controls to have engaged in oral sex. And a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the more oral sex partners a person has had, the greater their risk of developing throat cancer…

HPV is best known as the cause of cervical cancer, which kills 4,220 women in the U.S. each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. The virus can also cause vulvar, anal, penile and various head and neck cancers. A study published in October in the Journal of Clinical Oncology traced more than 70% of new cases of oral cancers to HPV infection, putting it ahead of tobacco use as the leading cause of such cancers.

If present trends continue, HPV will cause more cases of oral cancers than cervical cancer by 2020, according to the October study.

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