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Cervical cancer drops to No. 2 as the most common HPV-related cancer

Sept. 11, 2018—Cervical cancer is no longer the most common cancer caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV). A type of head and neck cancer has moved into its place, according to new research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. It's linked to many types of cancer, including cervical cancer in women. In fact, until now, cervical cancer was the most common cancer caused by HPV. But since 1999, the number of new cervical cancer cases has dropped each year. At the same time, new cases of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma climbed. In 2015, oropharyngeal cancer became the top cancer linked to HPV. It includes cancers at the base of the tongue and on the tonsils and soft palate. HPV also causes some vulvar, vaginal, penile and anal cancers.

Among other things, the research also showed that, from 1999 to 2015:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer rates increased every year among men 40 and older. They were highest among men ages 60 to 69 and among white men in general. They also increased slightly in women.
  • In 1999, there were 30,115 new cases of HPV-related cancers. In 2015, there were 43,371.
  • New cases of HPV-linked vaginal cancer rates decreased; anal and vulvar cancer rates increased; and penile cancer rates remained largely unchanged.

What caused the big change?

Although smoking can cause oropharyngeal cancer, it likely isn't the main reason this type of cancer has increased, CDC says. Smoking rates have been falling, and other studies show that HPV is behind the increase. Instead, the researchers wrote, it probably has to do with several factors. One of those is unprotected oral sex, which can lead to HPV infection.

Cervical cancer: Screening works

The drop in new cervical cancer cases since 1999 is actually part of a longer-term trend. It started in the 1950s. And it's due to the widespread use of screening with the Pap test. Currently, no routinely recommended screening tests exist for oropharyngeal or other HPV-related cancers, according to CDC. Common signs of oropharyngeal cancer are a persistent sore throat and a lump in the back of the mouth, throat or neck.

The research appears in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. You can read it online.

There is a vaccine for that

For a number of years now, vaccines have been available that help prevent many HPV-related cancers. For best protection, they're routinely given before people become sexually active. CDC recommends that all boys and girls get HPV vaccines when they're 11 or 12 years old. Here's what else parents should know about the HPV vaccine.

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