Doctors see rise in HPV-related cancers

USA Today Cervical cancer rates have fallen dramatically because of screening tests, but rates of other HPV-related cancers are increasing.

A new report documents a disturbing rise in the number of cases of cancer related to HPV, a family of sexually transmitted viruses linked to tumors of the cervix, head and neck, and several organs.

The spike in HPV-related cancers defies the generally positive trends in cancer, whose incidence and mortality rates continue to fall slightly each year, according to the report, published online Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is best known for causing cancer of the cervix and genital warts, both of which can now be prevented by vaccines. But HPV also causes cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis and anus, as well as oral cancers involving the back of the throat, tonsils and base of the tongue.

And while cervical cancer rates have fallen dramatically because of screening tests, rates of other HPV-related cancers are increasing, likely resulting from changes in sexual practices over the past 30 to 40 years.

"This is one of the epidemics of the 21st century," says Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, a co-sponsor of the report. "This is a huge problem."

Trends in HPV-related cancers vary by race and sex. Among the biggest changes from 2000 to 2009:

  • Oral cancer rates rose 4.9% in Native American men, 3.9% in white men, 1.7% in white women, 1% among Asian men, with smaller increases among Hispanic men and women.
  • Anal cancer rates increased in every group. The largest increases were in black men, at 5.6%; white women, 3.7%; white men, at 2.6%; and Asian men, at 2.1%. Overall rates of anal cancers, which are more common among those with HIV and AIDS, doubled between 1975 and 2009.
  • Vulvar cancers increased 1.4% among white women and 0.9% among black women.
  • Penile cancers increased 0.5% among Asian men.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world, according to the National Cancer Institute, another co-sponsor of the report. Most sexually active people become infected at some point, although most clear the infection with no lingering effects.