The truth about HPV and cancer: Too complicated for a headline

One of NPR's top stories this week is this one: 

Virus Passed During Oral Sex Tops Tobacco as Throat Cancer Cause

Kudos to the news source for not dumbing down the story, a big temptation, which if taken will surely lead to misunderstanding, especially in a headline. (Oral sex leads to cancer!)


Here's their lede: 

If you're keeping score, here's even more evidence that HPV causes oral, head and neck cancers and that vaccines may be able to prevent it.

Note what they didn't say — that oral sex leads to cancer. That's because it's not oral sex that's the problem, it's HPV (a virus that typically manifests as genital warts). 

Note also what they hastened to add: That vaccines can block the virus.

And here's what they glossed over.

Today young women are warned about HPV, which can lead to cervical cancer, and offered a vaccine, typically Gardisal, to block a cancer risk. But as a sex educator and academic named Adina Nack told me on an STD cover story I reported a while back, the vaccine prevents HPV, not cancer, and that's important, because of the way the virus spreads. 

Nack argued that if we were serious about the risks presented by HPV and the cancers it can encourage, cervical and otherwise, we would vaccine not just women but men too. But the manufacturer, fearing a backlash against the medicine if it is associated with STDs and not cancer, won't allow it. 

Nack's conclusion: In this country, we are nervous about sex, and women are held responsible for sexual health and sexually-transmitted diseases. As long as we think that way, we will not be able to stop such diseases, and a lot of people — including a lot of men — will suffer needlessly. 

This appears to be true!

In the NPR story, it's assumed that the costs of innoculating men against HPV is prohibitive, even if it means men are needlessly exposed to cancer risks. The cost of Gardisal, around $350, isn't even mentioned. Why would a man need protection against an STD? But a woman…

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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