HPV and Throat Cancer: So What About the Lesbians?

yellow-roadsign-download-iconA recent story in the New York Times reports that the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is helping protect people against throat cancers.

Infection with HPV is linked to cervical cancer – one of the few viruses that has been definitively linked to a cancer.

The report says that a new study shows the vaccine is proving to be beneficial against cancers caused by oral sex, and “presumably would protect men as well” (The study was done on women, but not women who identified as lesbians.)

Every time I read a study like this, I think, “So what about lesbians?” After all, we have a reputation for taking the big dive at the slightest invitation. Why not study older lesbians, who have presumably been performing oral sex on women for most of their sexual histories?

According to the NYT article, cancers caused by smoking or drinking usually occur in the mouth, those caused by oral sex usually occur at the base of the tongue or deep in the folds of tonsillar tissue, and are hard to detect. They are more common among heterosexual men than among women, or gay men; experts believe this is because vaginal fluid contains more virus than the surface of the penis.

Again, wouldn’t be logical to test older lesbians who have seen more pussy than penis?

The HPV vaccination is known by the brand names Gardisil and Cervarix. These have been wildly effective in cutting the infection rate of HPV in young women, which has fallen more more than 50 percent since the vaccine was first released in 2006.

However, in the most recent study, only Cervarix was tested.

The vaccine (both brands) is given in three doses, and the series should ideally be completed before a girl or young woman becomes sexually active. Only one of the brands – Gardisil – is approved to be given to boys and young men. (And even before this study and the link to throat cancer was established, pediatricians were recommending that boys be vaccinated for HPV to prevent them from transmitting the infection.)

Take home message: All kids – male and female – should be vaccinated. It’s recommended that both boys and girls begin the vaccination series at 11 years of age.

Both vaccines protect against the HPV types that cause most cervical cancers (there is more than one type of the virus). Gardasil has been shown to protect against cervical, anal, vaginal and vulvar cancers, and to also protect against HPV types that cause most genital warts.

Rates of throat cancer related to HPV have soared in the past 30 years. About 70 percent of oropharyngeal (throat) cancers are now caused by sexually transmitted viruses, up from 16 percent in the 1980s. And these cases are particularly prevalent among heterosexual middle-aged men.

The one thing that history has proven is that any health issue that affects men will be more studied and receive faster intervention than a similar issue affecting women.

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