Are partners of people with HPV-related oral cancers at risk too?

Spouses and long-term partners of patients with human papillomavirus (HPV)-related oral cancers appear to have no increased risk of oral HPV infections, according to a pilot study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

The study findings were presented June 1 at the 2013 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago.

The researchers noted that there are no guarantees that partners of such patients will not develop oral HPV infections or cancers, but the study found the partners had no increased prevalence of oral infections, which suggests their risk of HPV-related oral cancer remains low.

HPV-related oral cancers are rising in prevalence among white men in the U.S., and fear of transmitting the virus can lead to anxiety, divorce, and curtailing of sex and intimacy among couples, according to the researchers. Persistent oral HPV infections are a risk for developing oropharyngeal cancers.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital and three other hospitals, the study authors conducted surveys and took oral rinse samples from 166 male and female patients with HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers and 94 spouses and partners. The scientists also studied patients' tumor samples and performed visual oral examinations of spouses/partners. Of the 94 spouses/partners, six were male.

More than half of patients had at least one type of HPV DNA detectable in their oral rinses, including HPV16, the viral type most commonly associated with oral and other cancers. After a year, only seven patients (6%) still had oral HPV16 DNA detectable.

Of the 94 spouses/partners, six had oral HPV infections (6.5%). Among the six, none of the men and two of four females (2.3%) had HPV16 infections at very low levels. These infections were not detectable one year later. No oral cancers were detected among 60 spouses/partners who underwent a visual oral exam.

One spouse and one patient reported a history of cervical cancer. Two spouses reported a history of cervical precancer, and three patients said they had previous spouses with cervical cancers, but these were self-reported, unconfirmed cases.

More research is needed to determine the timeline of progression for HPV-related oral cancers and how HPV is transmitted and suppressed by the immune system, the study authors concluded.

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