A response to Michael Douglas’ recent news item that links HPV and cancer.

A re-posting of Damaged Goods? author Adina Nack’s feminist research blog entry from Girl w/ Pen that addresses the recent story in the media surrounding Michael Douglas’  oral cancer.

Having written about sexually transmitted HPV (human papillomavirus) for 13 years, I’ve been waiting for the day when  celebrity would lend his or her fame to spotlight the realities of HPV infection, especially of HPV-related oral cancers. My hopes were that big news could bring about big change.  Today is that day, but it remains to be seen if it can be long-needed catalyst for change.

When news first broke, about three years ago, that Michael Douglas had oral cancer, my gut instinct was that it had been caused by HPV, likely one of the same types of HPV that has been causally linked to cervical cancer. The mucus membrane tissue of mouth and throat are similar to those of genital skin, so researchers have known for some time that, like herpes, HPV could be transmitted oral to genital, as well as genital to oral.

Back in 2009, the research findings were already clear: oral transmission of cancer-causing HPV means that almost all of us are more likely at risk than we are safe from risk.  For my 2010 feature article in Ms. Magazine, I focused on the importance of not only educating the public about HPV-related cancers in men but also about the HPV-oral cancer link. In addition, I advocated for the need to destigmatize all STDs: my research and book have shown that STD stigma makes it more likely for at-risk/infected  individuals to put off getting tested and treated. Damaged Goods revised coverSTD stigma also makes it less likely for individuals to disclose their sexual health status to partners, placing those partners at greater risk for infection.  In addition, negative stereotypes about the ‘types’ of women and men likely to be infected distort our ideas of who is at risk.

I’ll wrap up this post with a call: for us to come together, to learn the facts and not be swayed by incomplete media coverage and confusing pharmaceutical claims.  We must support significant funding increases to investigate exactly how we can prevent HPV-related oral/throat cancers, which research shows to be steadily on the rise and more fatal than cervical cancers in the U.S.

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