A study carried out by The University of Sheffield has looked at the prevalence of oral HPV (human papillomavirus) and the risk factors that can contribute to contracting an infection.

Published in the British Medical Journal Open the study found infection rates to be lower than expected when compared to previous studies into HPV prevalence.

HPV has very recently been covered in the media, and on our blog, following a new announcement concerning the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine has been available to girls aged between 12-13 years since 2008. However, it was recently announced that the vaccine will be rolled out to offer cover to teenage boys as well. The current vaccine covers four HPV strains (16, 18, 6 and 11).

What did the study involve?

The study recruited 700 male and female participants via a number of means, through the university, a dental hospital and a sexual health centre.

The sample group was then asked to anonymously complete a questionnaire that included questions on smoking, alcohol and sexual history. Participants were also required to provide a finger-prick blood sample, an oral rinse and gargle sample, and an oral mucosal buccal epithelial cell sample.

What were the results?

Of the 700 participants it was found that 2.2 percent were infected with oral HR-HPV infection. And 0.7 percent were found to be positive for the strains HPV16 or HPV18.

What do the findings tell us?

This latest study into HR-HPV is said to confirm the association between oral sexual experiences and increased risk. Participants who reported 6-10 oral sexual partners had a significantly increased risk of HPV infection.

The study also concluded that former smokers were more at risk of having contracted the disease than those who have never smoked.

What does this mean in a real world context?

When HPV is mentioned in the media it is often with reference to its link to cervical cancer. However, the results of this study also aims to draw attention to the link between HPV and oropharyngeal cancers.

Oropharyngeal cancers are on the rise globally. This has been linked to an increase in the prevalence of oral infections with HR-HPV.

The current HPV vaccine has been deemed a success and has been found to offer protection against the most dangerous strains of HPV. The introduction of the vaccine should lead to a drop in the number of cervical cancer cases over the coming years.

Dr Vanessa Hearnden, who worked on the analysis, expressed the study’s full support for the recently announced HPV vaccination programme for boys.

However, she also went on to say that many of those testing positive for high risk strains of HPV were also carrying strains not covered by the current vaccine. This, she argued, demonstrated the need for newer vaccines to be developed which would offer additional protection against these strains; and also for continued efforts in helping to educate people on associated risk factors (namely the number of sexual partners, and tobacco use).