It’s Oral, Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. Every year, more
than 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with head and neck cancer, affecting
their nasal cavity, sinuses, larynx, throat, salivary glands and mouth,
according to the American Cancer Society. More risk factors have been
identified, and efforts being made against these diseases are beginning
to show promise.
“Tobacco and alcohol use are the risk factors traditionally associated
with the development of head and neck cancer,” said Hugh Hetherington,
MD, of Bozeman Health Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. “Now, human papilloma
virus (HPV) is recognized as an important cause of head and neck cancer
as well, typically diagnosed in younger patients without traditional risk
factors for head and neck cancer.”
HPV is common and contagious. While 90% of infected individuals are able
to clear the virus within two years of infection, 10% are at risk for
developing HPV-related cancers. HPV is most common in women in their mid-twenties
and gradually decreases with age. The incidence in men is stable across
all age groups.
“Human papilloma virus-related head and neck cancer is a growing
epidemic,” Dr. Hetherington said. “Historically, the incidence
of head and neck cancer paralleled the use of tobacco, with a lag of approximately
10-15 years. Today, up to 25% of head and neck cancers are caused by HPV
and up to 80% of tonsil and tongue based cancers are caused by HPV.”
The good news, according to Dr. Hetherington, is that patients with HPV-related
head and neck cancers have better survival rates, with a three-year survival
rate of 82.4% versus 57.1% for non-HPV-related head and neck cancers.
And currently, there are two vaccines that can protect against HPV infections.
Large trials have not evaluated the vaccines’ ability to prevent
HPV-related head and neck cancer, but have demonstrated the positive effect
of both vaccines in preventing certain types of lesions.
The current vaccines are not effective for treating existing infections
or HPV-related diseases. Treatment of established disease requires activation
of a different type of immune response that can recognize and eliminate
virus-infected cells. These HPV therapeutic vaccines are currently undergoing
clinical trials, and scientists hope to present more successes soon.