This story is over blown.
There's a worrisome uptick in the incidence of certain head and neck cancers among middle-aged and even younger Americans, and some experts link the trend to a rise in the popularity of oral sex over the past few decades.
That's because the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major trigger for these cancers, and HPV can be transmitted through this type of sexual activity.
"It seems like a pretty good link that more sexual activity, particularly oral sex, is associated with increased HPV infection," said Dr. Greg Hartig, professor of otolaryngology head and neck surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
Kudos to USAToday for finding an oddly appropriate picture for the story, too. Now, this seems like a bummer for the obvious reason but, in addition, it depresses me because I just know that it's going to become a conservative talking point. Hell, given how much Conservapedia rants about the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer,* I have every reason to think they'll start ranting about the link between perverse sex practices and head and neck cancer.** That said, we need to consider the magnitude of the effect:
A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that younger people with head and neck cancers who tested positive for oral HPV infection were more likely to have had multiple vaginal and oral sex partners in their lifetime.
In the study, having six or more oral sex partners over a lifetime was associated with a 3.4 times higher risk for oropharyngeal cancer cancers of the base of the tongue, back of the throat or tonsils. Having 26 or more vaginal-sex partners tripled the risk.
Right, so, the risk is tied not to the sex per se, but to the number of partners. And it looks like we're free to bang vaginally like deranged monkeys, so that's good. But, really, it gets even better:
The other good news at least for the younger set is that there is a relatively new vaccine to prevent against HPV infection. It's not going to help those who are already infected, but it "absolutely" could help those who aren't yet infected with the ubiquitous virus, Verret said.
So, it's a cancer risk that we can effectively block,*** thereby returning to the status quo where unprotected oral sex can just result in all manner of other unpleasant STDs. Woo-hoo.
But then, that wouldn't be as good a headline, would it?
* For anyone who isn't familiar, their claim both is and is not true, simultaneously. There's evidence that a completed pregnancy that includes breast feeding prior to age 35 lowers a woman's lifetime risk of breast cancer. At the same time, there's no evidence that abortion increases a woman's risk over that of a woman who did not have children. Thus, compared to the never-pregnant population, abortion does not increase the cancer risk. Compared to projected risk following a successful pregnancy, abortion increases the risk. So, really, it's a matter of your preferred reference category. Not that I think the average conservapeon is actually motivated by these fine distinctions- they hate abortion for entirely different reasons and will grab any club they can find to quash it.
** Yeah, the only thing that's perverse about oral sex is a failure to reciprocate. I'm looking at my fellow men here, too. Seriously, guys- bring a lunch, stay for the day.
*** I don't know that this lends itself to a good advertising slogan for Gardasil (e.g. "Gardasil: The vaccine that saved the blowjob") but it would be a pretty awesome entry under side effects (e.g. "Side effects may include, increased likelihood of receiving oral sex...").
As a side note: Best pun in a blog post title EVAR!