Researchers are urging New Zealanders to get immunised against a virus known as human papillomavirus (HPV) in a bid to significantly reduce the country's alarming throat cancer rates.
They have found almost 90 per cent of throat cancer cases are now being attributed to HPV, which is most commonly picked up from oral sex. That's up from 62 per cent in the 1990s.
Massey University PhD graduate Rebecca Lucas-Roxburgh, who led the study, said these rates could be reduced significantly with a higher uptake of the HPV immunisation which is now publicly funded for all New Zealanders aged nine to 26.
"This study highlights how much of a problem HPV cancers are in New Zealand. We have as many HPV positive oropharyngeal [throat] cancer cases now, as we do cervical cancers," Lucas-Roxburgh.
Researchers looked at the number of people diagnosed with throat cancer each year from 1996 and 2012 and what caused each one.
Lucas-Roxburgh said there were many strains of HPV but the most common, which was used in the vaccine, is HPV 16.
"While this was unexpected, it's great news. We recently updated the vaccine in New Zealand to one which covers more types, but even the one we used earlier had HPV 16 in it, so in terms of prevention, it was a good surprise," Lucas-Roxburgh said.
"Going forward, it is possible different treatments will be used for HPV positive and negative cases.
"If this happens we need to better determine the tumours' HPV status, so as not to under or over treat the patient," Lucas-Roxburgh said.
About the HPV vaccination:
• HPV immunisation protects against infection from the types of HPV that cause most cervical, anal and genital cancers, as well as some mouth and throat cancers.
• Since January 2017, HPV immunisation has been funded for everyone between the ages of nine and 26, including males.
• For those aged 9 to 14 years, HPV vaccine is provided as two doses in the upper arm, spaced at least six months apart. This age group develops a stronger immune response than those vaccinated when they are older, which is why it is recommended for both boys and girls at age 11 to 12.
• Those beginning vaccination at age 15 or older will need three doses. The immunisation is expected to provide long-lasting protection, well into adulthood.
About the HPV virus:
• HPV is a common virus spread through skin contact, often during sex.
• Four out of five people become infected with HPV at some time in their lives. The peak incidence of HPV infection is between the ages of 16 and 20.
• Usually HPV infections get better on their own. However, in some cases the virus can cause cells to grow abnormally and over time lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (throat).
• Immunisation, safer sex, and regular cervical screening are the most important ways to prevent diseases caused by HPV.
• Women who have had the HPV immunisation still need to have regular cervical screening. The vaccine doesn't protect against all the types of HPV that can cause cervical cancer or other sexually transmitted diseases.