Cancer: HPV virus a threat to men, too

ATLANTA — The sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer in women is poised to become one of the leading causes of oral cancer in men, according to a new study.

The HPV virus now causes as many cancers of the upper throat as tobacco and alcohol, probably because of an increase in oral sex and the decline in smoking, researchers say.

The only available vaccine against HPV, made by Merck &Co. Inc., is currently given only to girls and young women. But Merck plans this year to ask government permission to offer the shot to boys.

Experts say a primary reason for male vaccinations would be to prevent men from spreading the virus and help reduce the nearly 12,000 cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in U.S. women each year. But the new study should add to the argument that there may be a direct benefit for men, too.

“We need to start having a discussion about those cancers other than cervical cancer that may be affected in a positive way by the vaccine,” said study co-author Dr. Maura Gillison of Johns Hopkins University.

The study was published Friday in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer in women. It also can cause genital warts, penile and anal cancer — risks for males that generally don’t get the same attention as cervical cancer.

The study concluded the incidence rates for HPV-related oral cancers rose steadily in men from 1973 to 2004, becoming about as common as those from tobacco and alcohol.

The good news is that survival rates for the cancer are also increasing. That’s because tumors caused by HPV respond better to chemotherapy and radiation, Gillison said.

“If current trends continue, within the next 10 years there may be more oral cancers in the United States caused by HPV than tobacco or alcohol,” Gillison said.

Studies suggest oral sex is associated with HPV-related oral cancers, but a cause-effect relationship has not been proved. Other researchers have suggested that even unwashed hands can spread it to the mouth as well.

Merck’s vaccine, approved for girls in 2006, is a three-dose series priced at about $360. It is designed to protect against four types of HPV, including one associated with oral cancer.

Merck has been testing the vaccine in an international study, but it is focused on anal and penile cancer and genital warts, not oral cancers, said Kelley Dougherty, a Merck spokeswoman.

Government officials and the American Cancer Society say they don’t know yet whether Merck’s vaccine will be successful at preventing disease in men. No data from the company’s study are available yet.

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