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Oral sex causing cancer epidemic in men

Issued: 2018-03-08

By Marie McCullough

The Philadelphia Inquirer

March 08, 2018 10:09 AM

Five years ago, when actor Michael Douglas candidly revealed that his throat cancer was linked to having oral sex, two things happened.

He made headlines that mortified his family. And he helped publicize the fact that a pervasive, sexually transmitted virus called HPV was unleashing an epidemic of oral cancer among men.

Since then, scientists have made headway in figuring out why HPV, the human papillomavirus, has this glaring gender bias. Men are four times more likely than women to be diagnosed with oral cancer, a hard-to-detect, hard-to-treat disease that has overtaken cervical cancer as the most common HPV-related malignancy in the United States.

To be sure, changes in sexual norms over the last few generations have played a role in this alarming trend. But research increasingly shows the real problem is something men have practically no control over: their immune response.

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Compared with women, men are more likely to get infected with HPV – including “high-risk” cancer-causing strains. They also are less able to wipe out infection on their own, and more likely to get reinfected. The reasons are unclear.

“There is good evidence that men acquire oral infections more readily than women, even if they have similar sex practices,” said Ashish A. Deshmukh, a University of Florida HPV researcher. “And more than the acquisition, it’s the persistence of the virus. The clearance rate is not that fast in men.”

Michael Becker of Yardley has stepped up as the face of this immunological inequity. The 49-year-old former biotech executive is health-conscious, clean-living, happily married for 26 years – and battling terminal oropharyngeal cancer, the medical term for malignancies in parts of the mouth and throat.

He’s also battling the misconceptions and ignorance that keep too many parents from protecting their pubescent children – especially boys – against HPV-driven cancers. Two shots. That’s all it takes for the leading vaccine, Gardasil, to prevent most cervical cancers, less common genital malignancies, and the disease that is killing Becker.

“I can’t tell you how many emails I got from parents after the CBS segment,” he said, referring to a national television interview last month. “They said, ‘What do you mean this vaccine is for boys?' and ‘What do you mean oral cancer incidence has eclipsed cervical cancer?’”

HPV is a family of more than 100 virus types that can live in the flat, thin cells on the surface of the skin, cervix, vagina, anus, vulva, penis, mouth and throat.

The virus is spread through contact with infected skin, mucous membranes, and bodily fluids. Some types can be passed during intercourse or – as Douglas pointed out – oral sex.

While virtually all sexually active people will get infected at some point, the virus is usually wiped out by the immune system without so much as a symptom.


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