Largest oral HPV study in England shows lower rates of infection

The study found that lifestyle factors are incredibly important in preventing infection from HR-HPV, with tobacco usage being a risk factor…


Research recently conducted by the University of Sheffield has shown that infection rates of the high risk human papilloma virus (HR-HPV) oral infection are lower than England than previously predicted.

Scientists at the university also showed that smoking and sexual behaviour were risk factors for the oral infection.

The study was funded by the World Cancer Research Fund UK and was led by Professor Hilary Powers, Dr Vanessa Hearnden and Dr Craig Murdoch. It coincides with an announcement for a new UK HPV vaccine programme for boys, which aims to decrease the risk of HR-HPV related cancers.

Researchers questioned 700 men and women in Sheffield for the study, looking for the infection and asking participants lifestyle questions based around their tobacco usage and sexual history. This study is the largest of its kind in England.

Researchers found that 2.2 percent of participants were infected with HR-HPV, with 0.6 percent positive for HPV16 or HPV18. Previous studies have indicated large variations in HR-HPV prevalence globally, with studies from Scotland and the US finding 3.7 percent of individuals testing positive for oral HR-HPV.

Oral HR-HPV is known to lead to oropharyngeal (throat) cancer, and with an increase in the rates of HR-HPV infected individuals, rates of oropharyngeal cancers are also increasing worldwide.

Researchers found that former smokers were more likely to be HR-HPV positive compared with those who had never smoked. Those with a greater number of sexual or oral sexual partners were also more likely to test positive for HR-HPV.

Dr Hearnden said: “Previous studies have been US-focused or in smaller UK studies in London or Scotland. This is the first study in the North of England and found lower rates of oral high-risk human papillomavirus infection.

“We fully support the newly announced HPV vaccination programme for boys which will reduce the risk of HPV related cancers including throat cancer in men and will also provide further prevention of cervical cancers through herd immunity.

“However, we found the majority of individuals testing positive for high risk strains of HPV were actually positive for strains other than those covered by the current vaccine (HPV16 and HPV18). This shows the need to consider newer vaccines which protect against more HPV strains in the future and for individuals to be aware of lifestyle risk factors such as number of sexual partners and tobacco use.”

“Many people associate the HPV virus with cervical cancer but there is less recognition of the fact that HPV causes oropharyngeal cancer, and unfortunately, the prevalence of this cancer has increased dramatically in the past few years,” explained Dr Murdoch. The researchers suggest that the study confirms that lifestyle factors are hugely important in preventing the disease.

The team are working towards research into HPV-related oral cancer to identify ways of treating the disease and improve the quality of life for those affected.

The study was published in the British Medical Journal.