Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Oral sex causes cancer

Throat Yesterday I published a post on MicrobiologyBytes titled Oral sex causes throat cancer. It described a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University which suggests that Human Papillomavirus (HPV) poses a greater risk in contracting cancer than smoking or alcohol. The study of 300 people also found that that those with more than six partners were almost nine times at greater risk of contracting the disease. And those who had already experienced a previous oral HPV infection were 32 times more likely to develop cancer. HPV is the cause of roughly 70 per cent of cervical cancers. Researchers believed oral sex was the main mode of transmission of HPV but could not rule out that it could also be passed through kissing. During the study, men and women who had been recently diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer had blood and saliva samples taken and were also asked about their sexual practices and family history. They found HPV16 - one of the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus - was present in the tumours of 72 per cent of cancer patients. The scientists said the majority of HPV infections had no symptoms and often did not require treatment, but a small percentage of those who contracted high-risk strains may go on to develop cancer.

A commenter took me to task because although the study showed a statistical association between oral sex and throat cancer, it did not prove causation. And of course, they were quite right. However, the purpose of MicrobiologyBytes is to promote interest in microbiology, and to do that in the cacophony which is the internet, the site needs to attract attention. I thought very carefully before choosing that title, and it may be that many people agree with the commenter's viewpoint that the title is too sensational.

Did I cross the line?

I don't think so. MicrobiologyBytes is not trying to be a scientific journal, but I always link to the original research findings I am discussing so readers can make up their own minds. I frequently read stories in the media I would be interested in discussing, but for one reason or another I can't access the original research, so I don't discuss them. If because of the title one person read the article who would not otherwise have done so, or one person became aware of the oncogenic potential of human papillomaviruses, or a single person developed an interest in microbiology as a result, I feel fully justified.

Am I?