Oral sex could be causing a rise in oral cancers in the US, UK and Nigeria, with experts pointing to the transmission of a typically harmless virus. According to Dr Hisham Mehanna from the University of Birmingham, human papillomavirus (HPV) is to blame for around 70% of throat cancer cases, and those with multiple sexual partners have a nine times higher risk of getting throat cancer.
While over half of Americans have received the HPV vaccine, Dr Mehanna says that more like 80% of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve population safety. The story is not different in Nigeria, as HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the country. HPV has been identified as the major cause of cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer among women in Nigeria, with approximately 14,000 new cases and 10,000 deaths per year.
According to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), cervical cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in Nigerian women, with a prevalence of 1 in 26. The majority of these cases occur in women who are of reproductive age, between 15 and 44 years old. A recent study shows that 26% of Nigerian women have HPV, and this is a conservative estimate since most women infected with the virus are asymptomatic.
Experts are urging more Nigerians to get vaccinated against HPV, as the vaccine is 80% effective in preventing HPV infections, and is recommended for girls aged nine to 14 years old, and boys aged nine to 21 years old. Despite the availability of the vaccine in Nigeria, the country is still lagging behind in terms of vaccination rates. The vaccine is not currently part of the national immunization program and is only available through private hospitals and clinics, making it inaccessible to many Nigerians.
It is important to note that while HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer, it is also responsible for many other types of cancer, including oral cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the throat, forming in the back of the throat and around the tonsils, and is most likely caused by HPV. The virus is passed through anal, vaginal and oral sex, and those with six or more lifetime oral sex partners are 8.5 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than those who do not practice oral sex.
Dr Mehanna warns that the rise in oral cancers could become an epidemic if the vaccination rates for HPV do not increase. “Over the past two decades, there has been a rapid increase in throat cancer in the west, to the extent that some have called it an epidemic. This has been due to a large rise in a specific type of throat cancer called oropharyngeal cancer.”
While the vaccine can help prevent HPV infections, experts also recommend practicing safe sex, including using condoms, and limiting the number of sexual partners. Regular check-ups and early detection can also help in the treatment of oral cancers.
In conclusion, oral sex is a common sexual activity, but it can lead to the transmission of HPV, which can cause oral cancers. The rise in cases of oral cancers in Nigeria and other countries highlights the need for more people to get vaccinated against HPV. The Nigerian government should consider including the vaccine in the national immunisation programme to ensure that more people have access to it. Additionally, public health campaigns aimed at educating people about the risks of HPV and how to prevent it can also help reduce the incidence of oral cancers.