Sex virus blamed for increase in oral cancer

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Oral cancer cases have increased to more than 6,000 a year for the first time.

Cancer Research UK has attributed the increase to rising rates of the human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, especially through high-risk strains of the sexually transmitted virus.

Two thirds of the 6,200 cases diagnosed in the UK in 2011 were men.

Experts say men are more likely to smoke and drink heavily, both significant risk factors in oral cancer.

However, the increase may also be due to rising rates of the HPV infection.

As many as eight in 10 Britons will contract HPV at some point in their lives, but the virus is usually harmless.

Just a few strains cause problems, but one in particular, HPV-16, is known to cause cell changes which could develop into cancer.

There were particularly sharp rises in rates of cancers at the base of the tongue (an almost 90 per cent increase) and the tonsils (around a 70 per cent increase) – two areas of the mouth where cancers are more commonly HPV-related.

Richard Shaw, a Cancer Research UK expert in head and neck cancers based at the Liverpool Cancer Research UK Centre, said: “We have seen a rapid increase in the number of HPV16-positive cases of oral cancer.

“We have also noticed that patients with HPV-related oral cancers tend to be younger, are less likely to be smokers and have better outcomes from treatment than those whose tumours show no evidence of HPV.”