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HPV Triples Risk of Developing Esophageal Cancer

Update Date: Jul 24, 2013 06:36 PM EDT

Human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection, may triple the risk of esophageal cancer, a new study suggests.

HPV has been linked to cervical and genital cancers, and more recently to some head and neck cancers.

"One of the main issues is this form of esophageal cancer is usually diagnosed quite late and so has a very high mortality," lead author Dr Surabhi Liyanage, a PhD candidate with the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales Medicine, said in a statement.

Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma is the most common of two types of esophageal cancer.  It is the sixth highest cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide and is particularly prevalent in China, South Africa and Iran among men in their mid-70s to 80s. While researchers still do not know why the rate of esophageal squamous cell carcinoma is so high in these countries, they believe that it is linked to dietary, lifestyle and environmental factors.

"HPV is another factor which we can add to a long list of causes of OSCC," said Liyanage. "Smoking and alcohol are the main causes, as well as the consumption of extremely hot liquids, lots of red meat and possibly environmental toxins in the diet."

Researchers said the latest findings published in the journal PLOS ONE could have implications for vaccination programs around the world.

"This is an important new finding which resolves a previous uncertainty," senior author, UNSW Professor Raina MacIntyre, said in a statement. "Given that the most common two cervical cancer-causing HPVs are now preventable by early vaccination, this may be significant in countries where OSCC is frequently found."

"In China, it is one of the leading causes of cancer death, so Chinese health authorities could consider this in any deliberations they are having about potential benefits of HPV vaccination in their population," she added.

HPV vaccinations are currently used most commonly in young people in developed countries to prevent cervical cancer.

"Time will tell whether our universal HPV vaccination program has any additional benefit in prevention of cancers other than cervical cancer," MacIntyre said.

"The findings from this meta-analysis should rekindle the debate about looking at the potential causative role for oncogenic HPVs in esophageal cancer," added co-researcher Dr Suzanne Garland, from the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne.

"These findings will assist the expert group, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which examines evidence for potential oncogenic roles in various cancers."

"We look forward to a potential review by IARC of the meta-analysis and other studies in establishing a role or not for HPV," Garland concluded.

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