It is forecast to be the leading cause of a cancer more prevalent than testicular and cervical cancer combined. In the UK one in five cases of mouth cancer are associated with this virus, yet the general awareness surrounding it still comes up alarmingly short.
By this point I know you’re still wondering what it is. Here are two final clues; Michael Douglas claimed his cancer was caused by this, and you can transmit it through oral sex.
Still don’t know? That’s because very few people are unaware that the human papillomavirus (HPV), even exists, let alone know how it can be contracted. More than one in five men (21 per cent)1 in the UK are under the impression HPV can be transmitted like a common cold, which speaks volumes for just how little we know about HPV.
Cases of mouth cancer have doubled in the last 30 years, coinciding with the rise of HPV, and strengthen the argument that there is not enough awareness of the risks we take when we have unprotected sex. In fact, the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3)2 shows how the changing landscape of sexual attitudes over the last 20 years has impacted the rise of HPV.
In 1990-1991, the average number of sexual partners in a lifetime was 8.6 for men and 3.7 for women. Fast forward this to 2010-2012, and that has jumped to 11.7 for men and 7.7 for women. Increases in oral sex and anal sex – ways in which HPV can be transmitted – have also increased, suggesting we are taking more risks. You cheeky bunch.
However, it is perhaps the presence of HPV in the ‘sexually transmitted infection’ section that causes the most consternation. Increasing numbers of partners without the use of a condom were associated with high-risk HPV in both men and women3. Almost double the amount of women compared to men (15.9 per cent and 8.4 per cent respectively) had the HPV virus, with HPV-16 – the most common cause of cancer – reflecting a similar ratio (4.2 per cent to 2.3 per cent).
That all sounds quite scientific, but what it means is that the burden of HPV associated cancers is now almost the same in men as in women. On Tuesday 4 February, World Cancer Day takes place to raise the collective awareness and knowledge regarding cancer. HPV Action (HPVA) is a collaborative group of 24 organisations that are working to reduce the health burden associated with HPV. This includes calling for men to be vaccinated against HPV, and this is where you can help out.
The group have finalised a petition calling for Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to introduce the vaccination for boys. As men face a significant and rising risk of HPV associated disease, gender neutral vaccination – immunising boys and girls – would help to protect men as well as women. Without vaccination men remain at risk of infection and disease. It’s not fair, ethical or socially responsible to have a public health policy that leaves 50 per cent of the population vulnerable to infection. All girls aged 12 to 13 are offered the HPV vaccination, yet boys remain unprotected.
The HPV vaccination of young men has already started in Australia and the British Dental Health Foundation is calling for the same to happen in the UK. A wealth of evidence and opinion in the USA suggests a population-wide HPV vaccination programme is now the best solution – for general public health and financial reasons. It is a debate that has been opened again here in the UK, as part of the on-going debate about the health and well-being of young people. Only last week Sir Paul Beresford, himself a dentist, raised the issue during a debate in the House of Commons. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health, Jane Ellison, revealed the matter was being considered by the relevant committee.
To sign the petition, please visit Petition:Introduce HPV vaccination for boys to stop many preventable cancers. Alternatively you can donate to support HPV Action’s work via JustGiving.
1.Research conducted on behalf of the British Dental Health Foundation by OnePoll, September 2013. Sample size: 2,000
2.Framing sexual health research: adopting a broader perspective
Kaye Wellings,Anne M Johnson The Lancet – 30 November 2013 ( Vol. 382, Issue 9907, Pages 1759-1762 ) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62378-8
3.Prevalence, risk factors, and uptake of interventions for sexually transmitted infections in Britain: findings from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)
Dr Pam Sonnenberg PhD,Soazig Clifton BSc,Simon Beddows PhD,Nigel Field MBPhD,Kate Soldan PhD,Clare Tanton PhD,Catherine H Mercer PhD,Filomeno Coelho da Silva BSc,Sarah Alexander PhD,Andrew J Copas PhD,Andrew Phelps BA,Bob Erens MA,Philip Prah MSc,Wendy Macdowall MSc,Prof Kaye Wellings FRCOG,Prof Catherine A Ison PhD,Prof Anne M Johnson MD
The Lancet – 30 November 2013 ( Vol. 382, Issue 9907, Pages 1795-1806 ) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61947-9