Spreading HPV

Despite what you’ve been hearing about Michael Douglas’ oral sex life, new research says that while the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to a specific type of throat cancer, the risk of contracting it from a long-term partner is low.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital studied 83 couples in which one spouse had HPV-positive throat cancer to see if the virus was present in the other spouse.

Here’s the good news: Five percent of the wives of men with throat cancer had HPV, while the rate of husbands with HPV was 29 percent, rates comparable to those found in the general population.

"Recent research suggests that husbands of women with cervical cancer are at greater risk for a future HPV16 positive throat cancer, and patients with throat cancer have expressed reasonable concerns about infecting their spouses with the virus," Dr. Marshall Posner, medical director of the head and neck medical oncology program at Mount Sinai, said in a press release. "Ours is the first trial to evaluate the prevalence of HPV in long-term partners of people with throat cancer, and the findings should reassure those in long-term relationships that their risk is very low."

So Catherine Zeta-Jones should be just fine.

HPV & Throat Cancer on the Rise

The HPV link to throat cancer has been getting more attention lately because Douglas said in an interview that he had a type of throat cancer linked to HPV. 

It was widely reported that Douglas attributed his cancer to performing oral sex, but his agent clarified his statements by saying that Douglas didn’t say his cancer was specifically caused by cunnilingus, according to the Associated Press.

One specific strain of HPV—HPV 16—can cause cervical cancer in women, as well as vulvar, anal, vaginal, penile, and throat cancer. More than half of all throat cancers in the U.S. are linked to HPV 16, according to the American Cancer Society.

Some researchers have estimated that HPV-positive throat cancer cases are expected to surpass cervical cancer cases in as little as seven years.

As with most cases of cancer, there are typically many compounding factors that can lead to the development of cancerous cells, and so far there’s no proof that long-term partners of patients with HPV are at any higher risk. In Douglas’ case, years of cigarette smoking and drinking surely didn’t help.

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