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Study indicates HPV infection is more prevalent in cancer of the tonsils than previously thought

November 03, 2014 Atlanta — A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in May reports a high prevalence of Human papillomavirus infection in tissue samples from people with cancer in the tonsils, which is an oropharyngeal cancer.

This retrospective, cross-sectional study by a team of authors, including researchers at the CDC, appeared in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The study involved the detection and typing of HPV DNA from 557 tumor tissue samples from selected cancer registries in the United States.

Of the samples, 72 percent were HPV positive; 62 percent were positive for HPV 16 or 18, which are the high-risk HPV types most frequently associated with cervical cancer.  The study investigators indicated that the rate of HPV in these samples is higher than those reported in previous studies.

These high levels of HPV infected oropharyngeal cancers support a possible association between infection and these cancers, but are far from demonstrating causality. As the authors indicated, “Detection in tumor tissues potentially overestimates the true involvement of the virus because coincidental, transient infections and complementary transforming effects to other factors cannot be distinguished.”  Tobacco and alcohol are known risk factors for cancers of the mouth and throat. At this time, there is no recommendation to test patients for HPV to assess the risk for cancers of the mouth or throat.

The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends quadrivalent human papilloma vaccine for women aged 9-26 years (cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5602a1.htm), and for males 11-21 years (cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6050a3.htm) to prevent cervical cancer. There is no current recommendation of this vaccine to prevent other types of cancers.

The American Dental Association has HPV guidance in its Statement on Human Papillomavirus and Squamous Cell Cancers of the Oropharynx.

For the full study, visit Emerging Infectious Diseases at cdc.gov.