Throat cancer is on the rise. The major—and perhaps only—purpose for the increase: human papillomavirus (HPV) Type 16, the same infection that leads to cervical cancer.
In the 1980s only 16 percent of throat tumors originated from this HPV virus—now the majority come from HPV. In another 20 years, HPV may cause more cases of throat cancer than cervical cancer. Fortunately, throat cancer from HPV is more treatable and more preventable (better to prevent than to treat) than other throat cancers.
Viruses contribute to more cancers than we thought just five years ago. They may be responsible for 40 percent of the 200 forms of cancer (such as Hepatitis B and C leading to liver cancer).
Not all viruses can be prevented, but you can lower your risk. Merkel cell polyomavirus increases your chances of getting skin cancer. You can avoid the virus by decreasing exposure to sunburns, aka wearing sunscreen! The contagious cytomegalovirus has been associated with childhood brain tumors; prevent this one by washing your hands and not sharing beverages. Not too hard.
Vaccines can protect you, too. Two vaccines are available that fend off HPV Type 16 with over 80 percent success: Cervarix and Gardasil. That means this leading cause of throat cancer can be prevented more easily and more effectively than the flu, and you do not need yearly shots.
In recent years, the vaccine Gardasil has been given to 10-12 year old girls to prevent cervical cancer—Governor of Texas Rick Perry was smart enough (and we do mean that) to recommend all Texas girls take this preventive measure. This vaccine could now be offered to boys and men in addition, and help wipe out throat cancer. As of October 25th, 2011, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that boys and young men should get the HPV vaccine to protect against anal, mouth and neck cancers. The vaccines can be given to boys starting at age nine, and to men between 22 and 26 years old.
Though no one yet knows why, throat cancers from viruses are seen more in men than in women. Ideally, females and males should receive the vaccine before they are sexually active.
That said, you can receive the vaccine after this age. In many cases, it’s not too late!
Yes, there’s controversy over vaccines. The Dr. Oz show and our books like “You: Raising Your Child” go into the controversy (we interviewed more than 100 experts on every side of the controversy). Vaccines have decreased mortality rates by preventing virus infections and their complications. That doesn’t mean vaccines don’t come without side effects—just that their benefit will often vastly outweigh their risk. With childhood vaccines, for example, the benefits are about 20,000 times greater than the risk of injury. With about 40 million doses of Gardasil dispersed in the U.S., 0.05 percent of vaccinated people reported adverse side effects, according to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). Only 0.0004 percent of cases were considered serious side effects.
If you have not been vaccinated against HPV, get vaccinated. Until then, protect yourself by making sure your partner wears a condom during sexual activity, particularly if you’re not in a committed relationship. We are still vulnerable to viruses, long after we think we don’t have to practice safe sex anymore.
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