6 Nov 2017

A new study investigating awareness of mouth cancer in the United Kingdom reveals a startling lack of awareness when it comes to the disease and one of its leading causes, the human papillomavirus (HPV), sparking concern for health experts.

Research carried out by the Oral Health Foundation finds as little as three in 20 (15%) British adults recognise HPV, the world's most common sexually-transmitted infection, to be a cause of mouth cancer.

The report also shows more than two in three (67%) are unaware of oral sex increasing a person's mouth cancer risk by sexually transmitting the HPV virus.

During the next decade, HPV is expected to overtake smoking and excessive alcohol consumption as the leading cause of mouth cancer and with many unable to assess their own level of risk, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, is concerned this may lead to a growing number of mouth cancers being diagnosed too late.

Dr Carter says: "Almost every sexually active person will contract HPV as some point during their life. For most people, HPV is completely harmless and will not result in any symptoms or health problems. More often than not, it will lay dormant and then it will simply be thrown off, before the person even knows they have been infected.

"In some cases, however, HPV can lead to mouth cancer. It is quite alarming that awareness levels between HPV and mouth cancer are so low, especially given the scale of the problem."

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that there are more than 600 million cases of HPV infection worldwide.

There are now in excess of 7,500 new cases of mouth cancer in the UK a year, a figure which has increased by more than two-thirds (68%) in the last 20 years.

"The number of HPV-related mouth cancers has risen sharply over recent years and this presents a number of problems," adds Dr Carter.

"The key issue is not only do too few people know how HPV is passed on, but also that it could potentially lead to mouth cancer. This is especially dangerous, as by not considering ourselves at risk, it far more likely that we are less proactive when it comes to checking for any usual changes occurring to our mouth.

"Mouth cancer can be difficult to detect early as it often develops inside the mouth and is rarely visible on the outside of the body. This means it is especially easy to overlook the early signs and symptoms of the disease."

The early warning signs of mouth cancer include mouth ulcer that do not heal within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth and unusual lumps and swellings.

An early diagnosis of mouth cancer increases a person's chance of survival from 50% to 90%.

November is Mouth Cancer Action Month and the Oral Health Foundation is encouraging people to be Mouthaware by regularly checking for unusual changes to the mouth, lips, head and neck.

The charity has developed a full guide to mouth cancer self-examination3 and ask those who discover anything suspicious to contact their dentist or doctor immediately.

HPV also causes cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina and penis, as well as genital warts. British girls have been given the HPV jab since 2008 as part of the cervical vaccination programme.

Next week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), will make the ruling as to whether or not to extend the vaccination to boys.

Further findings from the charity's research show almost three in four (73%) support the proposals to vaccinate boys while a previous study revealed 95% of doctors and dentists also back the proposals.4

Peter Baker of HPV Action, a collaborative partnership of 48 patient and professional organisations that campaigns for gender neutral HPV vaccination, says: "The current HPV vaccination programme in the UK is immoral and is fundamentally supporting gender inequality.

"It is unfair, unethical and socially irresponsible to have a public health policy that leaves almost half of the population vulnerable. By changing the way HPV vaccinations are delivered in the UK we can save lives.

"Introducing a gender-neutral HPV programme will save thousands of lives every year in Britain. It will also save the under-pressure NHS tens of millions of pounds every year in treating HPV-related diseases."

Mouth Cancer Action Month runs throughout November and is organised by the Oral Health Foundation and sponsored by Simplyhealth Professionals, with additional support from Dentists' Provident. The charity campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms linked to mouth cancer so that more cases can be caught early.