The New Sex Disease

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A couple in bed wearing t-shirts and looking away from each otherDoctors used to think this STD threatened only women. Then the men started dying.

The culprit: Human papillomavirus (HPV), the same sexually transmitted infection associated with cervical cancer in women. A huge spike in the number of head and neck cancers linked to HPV over nearly two decades is raising alarms about the risk of the sexually contracted infections in a whole new population: men.

A study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reports there’s been a 225 percent uptick in HPV-positive oropharynx cancers since 1998, according to data from three U.S. cancer centers. The study also predicts that by 2020, oropharyngeal cancer will be the most common HPV-associated cancer in the U.S. surpassing cervical cancer.

Previously, tobacco and alcohol use had been the main causes of these tumors, which occur in the tonsils, base of the tongue and upper throat. But over the past few years, studies have shown HPV is playing a role in these cancer rates, likely due to an increase in oral sex even as tobacco use has fallen.

While HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, studies show women’s bodies usually clear the virus from the cervix quickly; only an infection that persists for years is a cancer risk. It’s not known if oral HPV acts in a similar way, nor is it clear if oral sex is the only way it’s transmitted, said Dr. Gregory Masters of the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

Regardless, more than 11,000 cervical cancer cases will be diagnosed this year, a number that has been dropping steadily thanks to better Pap smears. The researchers calculated that annual cases of cervical cancer will drop to 7,700 by 2020 – compared with about 8,700 cases of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer – about 7,400 of them in men.

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