Oral Sex-Linked Virus Risks Causing Esophageal Cancer

Human papillomavirus, the microbial cause of most cervical cancers, has been implicated in tumors of the genitals, anus, and throat -- including the type Michael Douglas had. Now scientists have linked it to esophageal cancer.

People with the virus, also known as HPV, which can be spread by oral sex, had a threefold increased risk of developing esophageal cancer than those not infected, according to a study led by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The finding, published today in the journal PLOS One, adds HPV infection to other known risk factors -- smoking and excessive alcohol consumption -- for a malignancy that kills about 406,000 people worldwide each year, the scientists said. The research showed a “robust” association between HPV and esophageal cancer, said co-author Raina MacIntyre, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the university.

“For a long time people have just said it’s uncertain, the jury is out,” she said in a telephone interview.

The finding adds to evidence supporting the use of GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK)’s Cervarix and Merck & Co. (MRK)’s Gardasil vaccines that protect against sexually transmitted HPV. Strains of the virus, which also causes warts, are particularly prevalent in China, South Africa and Iran, the study said.

“Given that the two most-common cervical cancer-causing HPVs are now preventable by early vaccination, this may be significant,” MacIntyre said. Esophageal cancer has a high case-fatality rate because it’s typically detected after the tumor has advanced, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kanoko Matsuyama in Tokyo at kmatsuyama2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jason Gale at j.gale@bloomberg.net

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