A new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and reported on in the New York Times, has determined that 6.9% of the American population, aged 14 to 69, has detectable levels of some serotype of HPV in their mouths/throats. The study was performed by PCR analysis of lysed cell extracts retrieved by a simple gargle-and-spit method using mouthwash.
The study also yielded numerous correlations between independent factors and rates of HPV infection. These ranged from the predictable, positive correlations with age and sexual activity since both increase the likelihood of exposure, to the thought-provoking, such as a tripled rate of infection for men vs. women(10.1%/3.6%) and a positive correlation between smoking and chances of infection. Of the serotypes tested, HPV-16, a type linked to both cervical and oral cancers, was the most prevalent of any given type but was still relatively minor at a 1% infection rate. Even so, if these numbers can be expanded for the entire population, that means ~2 million people are infected with an oral oncovirus.
Ultimately, this study alternately raises and calms fears at the same time. While the burden of dealing with potential oral cancers in the future appears grim, for now the numbers retrieved by the study pale in comparison to the rates of genital HPV infection and the chance of contracting cervical cancer. Still, investigations into the efficacy of vaccines to stop oral HPV transmission will likely be performed sometime in the future if the United States gets serious about reducing HPV infection rates.