Virus spread through kissing overtakes smoking as risk factor for head and neck cancers

monochrome image of an anonymous african-american couple kissing

DARWIN, Australia, Thursday July 30, 2015 – A virus responsible for a “tsunami” of head and neck cancer cases can be passed on through something as innocent as a kiss, according to an Australian doctor.

NT News reports that French kissing has overtaken smoking and drinking as the leading risk factor for developing these cancers.

A simple kiss can pass on human papilloma virus (HPV), and Head of Maxillofacial and Head and neck Surgery at the Royal Darwin Hospital, Dr Mahiban Thomas, said the virus was responsible for 70 per cent of head and neck cancer cases.

Dr Thomas said the risk of developing a head and neck cancer if infected by this virus in the oropharynx was over 250 times that of someone without the infection.

“This infection basically occurs with sexual contact,” Dr Thomas said.

“High-risk behaviours are oral sex, multiple kissing partners, and more recently there are reports even ‘petting’ can lead to infection.”

“If someone has kissed in excess of six people their risk of contracting HPV is higher, or if someone has kissed in excess of nine people the risk is significantly higher again,” he added.

Patients with HPV-related head and neck cancers were usually young, rarely drank and never smoked, Dr Thomas noted.

“They present at the fourth decade of life, a full 30 years before the traditional cancer would usually occur,” he added.

HPV has long been the known cause of most cervical cancers, but can affect both men and women.

“Gynaecologists have been dealing with HPV a lot longer and know a lot more about it than us . . . more research in this area is required, what we can tell you is this (HPV) is causing a tsunami for us,” Dr Thomas said.

HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer (cancers of the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) is now a huge burden around the world, according to NT News.

Roughly 14,000 throat-cancer cases are diagnosed every year in the United States alone, about 70 per cent of which are related to HPV.

There are more than 100 types of HPV, but only about eight “high risk” strains of the virus exist that can cause cancers in the oropharynx.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said studies suggest that about 7 per cent of people have oral HPV, with 1 per cent having the type of oral HPV that is found in oropharyngeal cancers.

Dr Thomas said greater awareness about HPV and its impact on head and neck cancers was important, especially for young people.

“There is an attitude, particularly in our younger generations, that oral sex is safe because you can’t get pregnant,” he said.

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