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HPV Now Responsible for Head and Neck Cancers

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Throat Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Since the discovery in 1984 that human papillomavirus (HPV) was responsible for cervical cancer, research has continued to prove the connection between HPV and cancers in other areas of the body.

It has been known for quite some time now that HPV is also responsible for dysplasias (abnormal cells) and cancer of the vulva, vagina, and the penis in men. In the last decade, the connection has also been made between HPV and anal cancer. More recent research has pointed to HPV as being the cause of a high percentage of oral and throat cancers.

In a study performed at the John’s Hopkins Oncology Center, 25 percent of the 253 patients included in the study and having been diagnosed with head and neck cancers were positive for HPV. Of those, HPV16 (considered to be one of the most aggressive strains of the virus) accounted for 90 percent of the cases. These results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, May 2008.

According to Dr. Maura Gillison of John’s Hopkins, HPV16 accounted for a 32-fold increase in risk for oropharyngeal squamous cell cancers. Subsequent studies have shown the percentage of HPV related tumors to be as high as 64 percent.

In a paper presented to the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2009, patients have a better chance of survival, by more than 50 percent, if their tumors contain HPV than if they don’t. The differences between those oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV and those caused by other factors such as prolonged cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and the chewing of tobacco are so marked, it is suggested that they be treated as two different types of cancer.

Researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo New York indicated that since 1989 they have had a three-fold increase in the number of throat cancers they treat. This is according to Dr. Thom Loree, Chair of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery. They also advocate a national discussion regarding providing the HPV vaccine to both young men and women in an effort to prevent these head and neck cancers. Their data showed that those patients whose cancers were HPV related were about 50 to 60 percent.

Since its approval by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2006, the Gardasil vaccine’s indication for use has changed numerous times to allow for the inclusion of the prevention of various other cancers. It appears that the vaccine may well prevent oropharyngeal cancers as well. Currently, the number of individuals who actually go on to complete the three shot series for the vaccine is a meager 30 percent in the United States. It will be interesting to see if these numbers increase when the focus shifts away from a sexually transmitted infection to a head or neck cancer.


Bonnie Diraimondo is an RN and considered an expert in HPV. She maintains her own website, thehpvsupportnetwork.org and blog. She advocates for education of both physicians and patients as well as vaccination.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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