In the past few weeks, the media has been rife with stories about actor Michael Douglas’ claim that his recent bout with throat cancer was caused by HPV. HPV (short for Human Papillomavirus) is a sexually transmitted disease with over 150 strains, 40 of which directly affect our mucus membranes, making its transmission through sexual contact (vaginal, anal, oral) quite easy.
The controversy at hand is whether it is, in fact, true that Mr. Douglas’s cancer was caused by HPV, which he was exposed to (in his opinion) through years of unprotected cunnilingus. People are focusing on whether or not this can be true since Mr. Douglas’s years of drinking and smoking are well documented and could easily be the culprit. There is a persistent hum of criticism that Mr. Douglas would rather attribute his cancer to his sexual bravado than to a perceived insouciance toward the repercussions of a life of smoking and drinking.
However, recent studies have shown that HPV has surpassed tobacco as the leading cause of mouth cancers, so while it may be true that smoking & drinking put him at risk, it is also a fact that the type of cancer that Mr. Douglas was treated for is the kind that is most often connected with HPV, and detected mostly in men.
To pay attention to the proverbial tennis match between Michael Douglas’s publicist and the news media is to gloss over the real point. The real point is that HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease to date. It can be contracted through unprotected cunnilingus and it can cause the type of cancer that Mr. Douglas was diagnosed with. This will be news to most people and it should be.
The fact is that while we are still trying to get people to protect themselves and others by wearing, or having their partners wear condoms, protecting oneself from STI’s from cunnilingus has gone mostly unmentioned in the mainstream media. According to an article in Time magazine back in 2007, Dr. Robert Haddad, clinical director of the Head and Neck Oncology Program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute says “(HPV) is a significant health issue,” and that “public awareness of the HPV virus needs to be just like that of HIV because the virus causes multiple types of cancer.” In all reality, men and women who perform cunnilingus should be educated about doing it safely, in tandem with condom education, as the risk of infection is greatly reduced when proper measures have been taken.
Don’t fear, there are ways to better protect yourself from the worst strains of HPV:
Most sexually active adults have at least one strain coursing through their system, and to deplete the future numbers of the infected, science has come up with two vaccines called Gardisil & Cervarix. When dosed to anyone under the age of 26, these vaccines can guard the host against up to eight of the most virulent strains that cause some cancers of the cervix (nearly all cervical cancers are caused by HPV), anus, penis, vagina and vulva as well as genital warts.
If you have a child, definitely consider getting him or her vaccinated against the most virulent strains of HPV before sexual maturity (ideally around the ages of 11 and 12). Vaccines are given in a 3 dose series and the possible side affects are uncommon and pale in comparison to what could result from not vaccinating. The vaccine does not work retroactively and therefore has no therapeutic affect on someone who has already contracted HPV.
Oral sex poses many of the same risk factors as vaginal or anal sex. Using a condom does not 100% protect you from getting the virus, but it drastically decreases the chances. Alternately, using something like a dental dam, a thin piece of latex, rubber or other thin material, placed over the vulva when performing cunnilingus is a smart idea as well (See: Sheer Glyde Dams). Though scientists are working on additional ways to prevent the spread of HPV (i.e.; a lube could be forthcoming), it’s important that men as well as women take the steps needed to prevent spreading HPV further.
1) What about kissing?
You might be curious about whether HPV can be transmitted through kissing. There are studies being performed as of this writing but no conclusive results have been released.
2) What if I’m too old to get vaccinated and have already been sexually active?
To catch potential cervical cancer early, women should get PAP smears regularly. Once a year, for those under 40 and twice a year, for women 40 and over. If you have high-risk factors (ex; DES exposure) check with your doctor about whether you should receive PAP smears more regularly.
3) Are genital warts the same thing as HPV?
90% of the genital warts diagnosed in this country are caused by HPV. Genital warts are the most common STI transmitted and sadly, you sometimes might not even know you have them as they are usually asymptomatic. For more on genital warts check out the CDC website.
4) What reputable sites can I go to, to learn more about HPV?
Your best bet is the Centers For Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov), the National Institute of health (http://www.nih.gov), and The National Cancer Institute (http://www.cancer.gov). Needless to say, it’s important to educate your children towards the perils of unprotected sex. They can learn about sexuality, safe sex and disease prevention from one of my favorite non-profits, Scarleteen (http://www.scarleteen.com).
Regardless, you don’t just want to take my word for it. Research HPV and other STI’s on your own (using the above links) so you know that you are up to date on the latest information. Because let’s face it, you’re going to have sex … just make certain you’re protected while you do it.