Infection with the human papilloma virus is very common. It is estimated that about 8 out of 10 people will be infected sometime during their lifetime. There are more than 100 forms of the virus. Most are harmless. Some cause warts and verrucae. Most HPV infections are cleared by the body’s immune system within 2 years. In many cases the sufferer is unaware they have had the infection.
A few forms of the virus can cause cancer of the cervix and the head and neck. HPV is spread by direct skin contact. Sexual activity is ideal for transmitting the virus to others either of the same or opposite sex. Oral sex has the highest risk of transmission. A high number of sexual partners also increases risk.
Cancer caused by HPV tends to be found at the back of the mouth, at the base of the tongue and around the tonsil areas. It can be difficult to see and diagnosis often follows the discovery of enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. The good news is that cancer caused by HPV tends to respond better to treatment than other types of oral cancer.
In the UK girls of 12-13 years are routinely vaccinated against HPV. Vaccines have not yet been made freely available for boys and the Mouth Cancer Foundation along with other interested groups continues to strive for the routine vaccination of both genders.
HPV largely accounts for the recent increase in mouth cancer among the young and is projected to overtake smoking as the main risk factor within 10 years.
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