This Oral-Sex Cancer Scare Brought to You by GlaxoSmithKline

Last Updated Mar 26, 2010 6:27 PM EDT

An editorial in the British Medical Journal warns of a 51 percent rise in head and neck cancers caused by the human papillomavirus, which is transmitted via oral sex. It all sounds so horrible. If only there was a vaccine to prevent HPV and allow us all to get back to, um, you-know-what without worrying.

Of course, there is one: Cervarix. It's made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). And it is therefore unlikely to be a coincidence that the lead author of the BMJ article, Hisham Mehanna, is director of the GSK-funded Institute of Head and Neck Studies and Education at University Hospital in Coventry, U.K. In a footnote to the piece, a disclosure says Mehanna "is the director of an institute that does contractwork for GlaxoSmithKline that has interests in head and neckcancers." In the media, the part about the footnote has gotten less attention than the part about the "sex virus."

So how seriously should we take this oral sex cancer scare? In the U.S., it's not yet much of a problem. It affects fewer than two people per 100,000:

... the incidence of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma increased by 22% from 1.53 per 100,000 to 1.87 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2006,
In Britain, it's a bit more serious; it's up to 11 per 100,000:
The United Kingdom has seen a 51% increase in oral and oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma in men from seven per 100,000 to 11 per 100,000 between 1989 and 2006.
(What on earth are they doing over there that we are not?)

Cervarix isn't approved for males or for preventing head and neck cancers. The competing product, Merck (MRK)'s Gardasil, is approved for preventing genital warts in boys (the precursor to cancer). Both companies would like the FDA and European authorities to expand the number of reasons people should be given their vaccines. Which is why we're seeing a sudden rash of sex-cancer-scare stories like this one, and a Merck-funded effort about penile cancer.

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Image by Flickr user jessicafm, CC.