You’ve probably heard of human papillomavirus, or HPV, the rampant sexually transmitted disease most often associated with cervical cancer in women. How rampant? Odds are good that you once had the virus, you have it now, or you will contract it soon. In fact, the CDC estimates that half of all sexually active people become HPV positive at some time in their lives. With 6 million new infections each year, HPV is the most widely spread and overexposed STD we’ve ever known—the Kim Kardashian of communicable diseases, if you will.
The reason HPV moves around the way it does has to do with its stealth: In 99 percent of cases, the disease is symptom-free. (The remaining 1 percent present as bumpy, cauliflowery warts on the penis or groin area in men and in and around the vagina in women.) Most people infected with HPV have no idea they have it, who they contracted it from, or that they could be infecting others.
Cancer researchers have known about HPV’s connection with cervical cancer since the 1970s, but they’ve only recently discovered a similar link between the virus and oral cancer. For years, the rate of new head and neck cancers had been declining in tandem with falling smoking rates. But then, after noticing a major upswing in the number of young nonsmokers being diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer—a form of oral cancer found in the tonsils and in the base of the tongue—doctors at Johns Hopkins acted on a hunch and began testing cancerous tissue for HPV. The resulting study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that exposure to HPV-16, a high-risk strain known to cause cervical cancer, made patients 32 times as likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer. By comparison, the previous top risk factors—a history of heavy smoking and a history of heavy drinking—were found to increase that risk by just 3 and 2.5 times, respectively.
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