Quickfire Science: HPV and Oral Cancer

Was Michael Douglas right when he said his oral cancer was caused by a virus?
06 June 2013


This week, Michael Douglas revealed in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, that he believes the throat cancer he suffered was a result of infection with the human papillomavirus that's HPV. An infection that he believes he contracted through oral sex. Dominic teamed up with Kate Lamble to bring you the quickfire science.

Kate - Human papillomavirus or HPV is the name of a group of more than a hundred viruses which infect the skin and the membranes lining your body like the inside of your mouth or the anogenital tract.

Dominic - The virus is passed from person to person by skin to skin or genital contact.

Kate - More than half of men and women catch HPV within 3 years of becoming sexually active and most will be unaware they've contracted it because in the majority of cases, there are few, if any, symptoms.

Dominic - An HPV infection will clear up easily in over 90% of cases, but some people will experience a persistent infection which could put patients at risk of cancer throughout their lifetime.

Kate - Fifteen HPV viruses are associated with an increased cancer risk. One type, HPV 16 is responsible for around 80% of anal cancers and 60% of oral cancers.

Dominic - As well as their link with cancers, different members of the HPV family of viruses, also called warts and verrucas.

Kate - In the US, cases of throat cancers associated with the HPV infection increased threefold between 1988 and 2004.

Dominic - In the UK, an HPV vaccine has been offered to girls since 2008. But it's currently not offered to boys.

Kate - This is because we rely on the idea that immunized girls will protect the boys. However, critics argue that men who have sex with other men, or unimmunized women are still at risk. Australia recently became one of the first countries to introduce the vaccine for both sexes.

Dominic - We don't know whether Michael Douglas's oral cancer were HPV positive or negative, but the virus can be a factor in similar cases. To reduce the risk, doctors advised people to receive the HPV vaccine or use condoms or dental dams to reduce genital contact.


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