To mark World Head and Cancer Day 2017 (July 27), Dr Gillian Knight, Head of Biosciences at the University of Derby, discusses the importance of being vaccinated against the common infection of Human Papilloma Virus which can lead to head, neck and cervical cancers.
Since the 1990s there has been a 30% increase in head and neck cancers within the UK, with over 11,000 new cases being diagnosed in 2014. These are now the fourth most common cancer in men.
Head and neck cancers are mainly caused by lifestyle risk, with the three main risks being smoking, drinking and infection with a virus called Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).
HPV is a very common viral infection which can be passed through close contact and causes warts and verrucas. It is estimated that around 80% of people will be exposed to the most prevalent strains of HPV by their mid-twenties and that high-risk strains can lead to head and neck and cervical cancers.
Cancer Research UK states that an estimated 8% of oral cavity cancers, 14% of oropharyngeal cancers, and 11% of laryngeal cancers in the UK are linked to HPV infection.
Research being conducted at the University of Derby as part of the Lifestyle Disease Research Group is investigating the rates of oral HPV infection in healthy adults and to see if certain factors such as gender and life style choices (smoking, drinking, sexual habits) can increase the risk of becoming infected with HPV. It is one of the first pilot studies in the UK looking at the rates of a common oral infection in young healthy adults which can cause cancer in the mouth.
We already know that this high infection rate of HPV influences the likelihood of women developing cervical cancer, but what we don’t know is how many people who have an oral HPV infection go on to develop HPV head and neck cancer.
Our study is also looking into whether the HPV vaccination programme, that are currently only given to girls within the UK, is influencing rates of oral HPV infection. In the UK, we only vaccinate 12-13 year old girls with the HPV jab to prevent them from picking up the high-risk strains of HPV when they become sexually active, which hopefully will prevent in girls all HPV-related cancers, including cervical cancer.
We do not vaccinate boys even though they have the same risk of contracting HPV infection as women and a recently identified risk – higher than in women – to head and neck cancer. There is call amongst HPV scientists and also support organisations such as HPVAction.org to look to follow the lead of other countries such as Canada, USA and Australia to make this HPV vaccination gender neutral.
Our Lifestyle Disease Research Group is now working in collaboration with The Swallows Head & Neck Charity to raise awareness of HPV infection and the diseases it can cause. Students from two of the University of Derby’s degree programmes, BSc (Hons) Human Biology and BSc/MSci (Hons) Biomedical Health, supported by the University of Derby Technology Enhanced Learning team, are currently working with The Swallows charity to develop a HPV educational video, which will be used to raise awareness in young adults and their parents around head and neck cancer and HPV vaccination programme.
For more information about the study, click here.
To watch a video of Dr Gillian Knight explaining her research, click here.
Dr Gillian Knight has been working with The Swallows Head and Neck Charity to create a film about HPV. The film, called ‘What about me?’, is a short educational film in production about HPV, which features children and young adults talking about their knowledge of HPV, and is designed to provide a greater understanding about HPV for children and their parents.
A teaser trailer has been launched – watch here – to mark World Head and Neck Cancer Day. The full film will be available to watch on November 7, 2017.