Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Infection Connection: Goin’ Down

Stones tongue greyThe Interwebz is abuzz with Michael Douglas’s revelation that his throat cancer was caused not by smoking or drinking, but by oral sex.

That’s right. In a case of maybe a little too much information, he said that it happened because he caught HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) from performing cunnilingus.

The jokes just kind of write themselves on this one, but I am thinking that he has done public health a great service by speaking publicly about this.

This might lead to a greater dialogue about HPV vaccination for not just young girls, but young boys; it might also help to get the word out that contrary to what far too many young people believe, oral sex is not necessarily safe sex.

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer, but it can indeed cause oral cancers. Various other sexually transmitted infections can be transferred through oral sex: Herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, Chlamydia, and even Hepatitis B. From what I’ve read, a lot of kids think that oral sex is no big deal and they won’t catch anything from it. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and although other types of sex carry a greater risk, oral is still very much a way to catch an STI.

There has been some backlash against the HPV vaccine, with some people thinking it will lead to promiscuity and that great scientific mind, Michele Bachmann, saying that “someone told her” that their daughter became “mentally retarded” after getting the shot. Hey, Michele Bachmann, someone told me that you’re a freakin’ idiot! In fact, several people have told me that, so there you go. Must be true!

Anyway, all I can say to that is that we now have a vaccine that HELPS PREVENT CANCER. One of the tasks I did in the lab for many years was HPV testing. I remember how excited we were in the Microbiology world when they first realized the HPV-cervical cancer connection, developed the diagnostic test for early identification, and then came out with the HPV vaccine. This is a way to vaccinate against cancer. How amazing is that?? It still astounds me, and I hope that my working on that test for several years helped at least a few women get diagnosed early enough to get effective treatment and save their lives.

We had positive results for HPV, gonorrhea, and Chlamydia on girls as young as 12. Sometimes the diagnosis listed in their information was “pregnancy.” (Anyone who is pregnant gets STI tests.) Abstinence-only education just doesn’t work, folks. Anyone who thinks so has forgotten what it’s like to be a horny teenager. You can certainly stress that it is okay to NOT indulge, but safety and prevention also must be taught and stressed. Part of that education needs to include the risks of oral sex. It most certainly is not safe sex. SafeR, maybe, but definitely not completely safe.

So I applaud Michael Douglas for saying what he did in that interview. It might result in plenty of jokes, but I think it will also generate a discussion about sexuality that we are way too reluctant to have in this country. We are seriously a bunch of prudes, and sex and sexuality is treated as something not to be discussed, or if it is, only whispered about in private conversations. Certainly not discussed in school! When you create such an atmosphere of mystique about something, it becomes catnip for any adolescent or young adult. Education isn’t going to make them do it. They’re already doing it! But maybe it will keep them a little safer. Isn’t that the most important thing?

Thank you, Michael Douglas...and thank you, Michael Douglas’s tongue! You guys rock!


  1. No you didn't! When I read about Douglas' revelations about his cancer, my first thought was, "There will be jokes." Thanks for your gutsy approach in tackling this topic nonetheless, and thanks for sharing your specialized knowledge on STIs. It's not just the young girls who need info, a lot of us older girls need reliable information as well. Quite frankly, before your article, I still hadn't made the connection that boys need to get the HPV vaccine too! Great post!

  2. ... well, that solidifies one excellent excuse for a cats lack of reciprocation (if you smell what I am cooking..!)

    Seriously, I think he did the vaccine big a favor... now that there is a grave risk to men, I won't be surprised if more lawmakers get on the bandwagon...

  3. I agree with Sheria, us older gals need the information you shared too. I am ashamed to say I didn't know any of facts you provided regarding oral sex or the HPV vaccine. Kudos to you for having in a hand in helping with the vaccine as well.

    I had to laugh out loud when I read the headline about Michael Douglas but after reading your entry I applaud him for his balls to bring this to light. He had to know it would be a jokefest.

    Great entry, Beth!

    1. Oh, I didn't have a hand in the vaccine. That was developed elsewhere. I don't know if some of our test data was turned over for statistical purposes--a lot of that stuff is--but our lab was a clinical one, not research.


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