The HPV Vaccine and Its Link to Oral Cancer

It has been well established that having the human papilloma virus (HPV) is a strong risk factor for oral cancers, especially in the sites of the lingual and palatine tonsils, the soft palate and the base of the tongue. There are more than 120 types of HPV but there are only a few that are high-risk factors for oral cancer. These are the HPV-16 and HPV-18 types.

The risk of oral cancer generally increases with age; however, we are seeing an increase in incidence in patients under the age of 40. This may be due to the link with the HPV.

The risk factors for the HPV infection include having first intercourse at a younger age and having had a large number of sexual partners. It is thought that changing sexual practices in our society may increase the effect of HPV infection on the development of oral cancers and premalignant lesions in younger individuals.

It is for this reason that the HPV vaccine is highly recommended for all young people. In Canada, the recommendation is that children ages 12-13 should be given two doses of the vaccine, six to 12 months apart. In Victoria, the HPV vaccine is available for free to all adolescents in year seven of secondary school. Check with your local health unit for more information.

Reference: Laronde, D.M., Hislop, T.G., Elwood, J.M., Rosin, M.P. Oral Cancer: Just the Facts. Journal Canadian Dental Association 2008, Vol. 74, No. 3: 269-72.