According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of American adults have human papillomavirus (HPV)—the virus known to cause genital warts, cervical cancer, and—discovered only in recent years—throat cancer. But statistics show that more men than women are infected with the most common sexually transmitted disease in the US.
In the latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 43 percent of the total population had HPV between 2013 and 2014. Overall, more men than women between the ages of 18 and 59 had the virus: 45 percent of men versus almost 40 percent of women had any form of it, and a quarter of men versus 20 percent of women had high-risk forms of genital HPV. (The report's authors define high-risk as types of HPV that "could cause cancer in different areas of the body including the cervix and vagina in women, penis in men, and anus and oropharynx in both men and women.")
Additionally, researchers found that Asian adults had the lowest rates of infection while African-Americans had the highest.
The report also offered the most recent estimates of HPV found in the mouth and throat among adults. According to the findings, 7.3 percent reported cases of oral HPV between 2011 and 2014. The gap between cases among men and women was significant: 11.5 percent of men had oral HPV, compared to 3.3 percent of women.
Although most HPV infections go away on their own, there's still plenty of room for concern. In recent years, health experts have reported the rise of HPV-related cases of oropharyngeal cancer, or cancers that occur in the tonsils and base of tongue. And studies have shown that behaviors in the bedroom—including cunnilingus—are consistently associated with oral HPV infection.
In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the authors write: "Indeed, in many cross-sectional studies, having performed oral sex on a higher number of recent or lifetime partners is associated with increased odds of prevalent oral HPV. However, because sexual behaviors are generally co-linear, it is difficult to distinguish which sexual behaviors are responsible for HPV transmission from the genital tract to the mouth. Deep kissing (i.e., French kissing), rimming (i.e., oral-anal contact), autoinoculation, and peripartum exposure have also been associated with prevalent oral HPV infection, albeit inconsistently."
Dr. Lois Ramondetta, a professor of gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, told NBC News last year: "There is an epidemic of HPV related cancers in men, specifically those of the tonsil and the back of the tongue. What's really important to know about those is that there is no screening test for those."
That's why, she said, early vaccination is so important. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for young women through the age of 26, and for young men through 21. But in 2014, only 40 percent of adolescent girls aged 13-17 received all three doses of the vaccine. For teen boys, that figure was about half (21.6 percent).