New research suggests men could have an increased risk of head and neck cancers because, when compared to women, men tend to have the oral human papillomavirus (HPV) in greater numbers.

In a study conducted by scientists at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), data from a cross-sectional study as part of the 2009-10 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was examined.

After assessing about 5,500 people aged 14 to 69, the results showed roughly 10 percent of men had oral HPV, compared with 3.6 percent of women. Prevalence of HPV increased with lifetime or recent number of partners for any kind of sex, including vaginal or oral sex.

HPV causes the majority of cervical cancers, as well as genital, anal, head and neck cancers.

The researchers say that while smoking and drinking are significant known risk factors for head and neck cancers, oral HPV infection increases that risk by around 50 percent. What’s more, they say HPV has been directly implicated as an underlying cause for a rise in head and neck cancers over the last three decades.

Writing in JAMA, the team led by Dr. Maura Gillison said their findings should influence research into the existing HPV vaccines and how effective they could be in preventing oral cancers.

“Vaccine efficacy against oral HPV infection is unknown, and therefore vaccination cannot currently be recommended for the primary prevention of oropharyngeal cancer,” they said. “Given an analysis of US cancer registry data recently projected that the number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed each year will surpass that of invasive cervical cancers by the year 2020, perhaps such vaccine trials are warranted.”

Jessica Harris, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, said, “Although there isn’t yet any evidence to show whether HPV vaccination is effective at preventing oral HPV infections, results like these are vital to help inform prevention programs in the future.”

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