The last three decades have seen a rise in the cases of head and neck cancer and a shift in the cause of such cancers, according to experts at Baylor College of Medicine. However, the development of HPV vaccines offers a potential for prevention.

In the past, head and neck cancer was most commonly seen in individuals with long histories of tobacco and alcohol use. However, it is now estimated that 30 to 40 percent of oropharyngeal cancers (one type of head and neck cancer that occurs in the tonsils and base of tongue) worldwide are related to human papilloma virus, or HPV, infection.

“The proportion of head and neck cancer attributed to HPV infection has dramatically increased, especially among young men – those under 45 years old,” said Dr. Michael Scheurer, associate professor of pediatrics in hematology and oncology at Baylor.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can infect the oral cavity, tonsils, back of the throat, anus and genitals. There are many types of HPV, but only some of them are cancer-causing.

HPV infection is common in the United States with approximately 79 million individuals actively infected at any given time. Furthermore, nearly all sexually active men and women are infected with HPV at some point in their lives.

“A recent study from the U.S. showed that over the past 20 years, the rate of HPV detection in oropharyngeal tumor specimens increased to 70 percent from 16 percent,” said Dr. Elizabeth Chiao associate professor of medicine – infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine. “Another study suggested that if recent incidence trends continue, the annual number of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers may surpass the annual number of cervical cancers by the year 2020.”

While there currently is no cure, there are HPV vaccines that help prevent the development of new infections.

“Although the HPV vaccines have been shown to prevent anogenital infections with the HPV-types associated with the development of oropharynx cancers, no studies have yet demonstrated a direct effect of the HPV vaccines in protecting against oropharyngeal cancer,” said Chiao.  “Overall, it is reasonable to expect that HPV vaccines will be effective against oropharyngeal cancer caused by the same HPV types targeted by the vaccine, but this will have to be confirmed in future studies.”

Preventative vaccinations are recommended for those between the ages of nine and 26 said Scheurer.