HPV-Related throat cancer on the rise in Canada

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A study based in five major medical centres around the country has found evidence that HPV-related throat cancer is on the rise in Canada. HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, is the most common  sexually transmitted virus in the country and world wide, according to Health Canada. Because most HPV cases will clear up on their own, many might believe that they are not at risk however, an estimated 75 per cent of sexually active adults will be infected with it at one time or another.

The study, conducted by more than a dozen doctors in major medical centers across the country, included adults over 18 years  with squamous cell oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed from 2000 to 2012 with and without HPV. The study was conducted in Toronto, Calgary, Halifax, Edmonton and six regional centres in British Columbia. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer is considered to have much better survival rates than non-HPV-related cases. Treatment, according to the study, is therefore less intense without affecting the outcome. The survival rate for those diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancers averages at 64 per cent, though survival rates for black patients are considerably lower, at about 47 per cent. Of course, with early detection survival rates increase, up to 83 per cent over a five year period. According to the Center for Disease control in the US, most cases of cancer in the head and neck are caused by alcohol consumption or smoking, but they now say that as many as 60 or 70 per cent of oropharyngeal cancers are related to HPV.

Other cancers associated with HPV include those of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus. HPV may be responsible for more than 50 per cent of cases of cancer in the vulva, vagina and penis, and as much as 90 per cent of anal cancer cases.

Oral HPV is three times more common in men than in women, with some physicians attributing the discrepancy to sexual orientation. Stigma surrounding same-sex orientation sex education may prevent LGBTQ youth from accessing information on safer sex practices or seeking medical care for sexually transmitted illnesses.

People can protect themselves from oral and other types of HPV by getting one of two vaccines which will protect them from the most common forms of the virus which are known to cause changes in cervical cells. Students should also practice safe sex. Oral sex, despite what some may think, is still sex and condoms and/or dental dams should always be used when participating. Though the risk of passing common STDs like Gonorrhea or Chlamydia is less during oral sex, Syphilis, Herpes and HIV can be passed to a partner in this way. There is no concrete study at the moment that looks at the prevention of oral HPV and it is not yet known for sure how exactly HPV is transferred from person to person. The CDC in the US says “it is likely that condoms and dental dams, when used consistently and correctly, will lower the chances of giving or getting oral HPV during oral sex because they can stop the transmission of HPV from person to person.”

As of last year, the government of Canada recommends that women between the ages of 9 and 45 who are not currently pregnant, men between the ages of 9 and 26, and all men who engage in sexual activity with other men be immunised against the virus.

“HPV vaccine is approved for use in over 100 countries,” says Health Canada. “Over 175 million doses have been distributed worldwide. Extensive, ongoing monitoring done in Canada and globally continues to show that the HPV vaccine is very safe.”

Students looking to get the Gardasil (for men and women) or Cervarix (women only) vaccine can make an appointment with Brock Health Services during the regular school year. The Brock University student health plan does cover doctor visits but does not cover the immunization itself. Students will have to use a third party insurance plan, such as one provided through parents or a spouse – though many may not cover HPV vaccinations – or pay out of pocket.

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