A relatively new find in the field of sexually transmitted infections is putting a new spin on the belief of sexual risk reduction held by many teens and young people. The studies on HPV, or Human Papillomavirus, and its link to certain cancers have been ongoing for years. New research is finding that the strains of HPV that are known to lead to cervical, penile, anal, and vaginal cancers may also be linked to cancers in the throat.
Sexual health educators have known for a decade that HPV can lead to cancers of the reproductive organs in both males and females. New studies are also showing high percentages of throat cancers may also be linked to the virus. Young people have reportedly used oral sex as a safer alternative to vaginal and/or anal sex. Oral sex is seen as a ‘harm reduction’ strategy to help avoid HIV infection, prevent pregnancy, and even to maintain technical virginity. But now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is citing HPV as being related to 60% of cases of throat cancers. Typically these cancers have been attributed to smoking and alcohol consumption.
HPV can be found in several bodily fluids including semen and vaginal fluids, among others. In order to prevent the higher-risk strains of HPV from infecting young people, a vaccine has been developed and tested in recent years to be given to females over the age of 9 and under 26. It is a three-shot series that can be given by the primary care physician or at the Oneida County public health department during open clinic hours. Recently a vaccine has been tested and approved for males as well.
Of course, youth prevention education can be a powerful tool in stopping the spread of all STI’s including HPV. Using barriers made from latex, polyurethane or polyisoprene (for latex sensitivity) can greatly reduce the risk of contact with a person’s infected body fluids. Oral sex barriers, such as male condoms and dental dams, must be used correctly and consistently to offer the highest amount of protection possible. Abstinence from all three types of sex undoubtedly offers the most reliable form of protection. Realistically speaking, expressing sexuality and sexual activity itself are human nature and will always be part of the teen landscape. A combination of accurate education, access to safer-sex barriers, health services for teens, as well as open and honest communication is needed to provide young people with the tools they need to prevent chronic and long-term negative health effects. Unfortunately young people currently represent the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections in the US among all age groups.