Lack of public awareness of a new cancer epidemic is causing lasting damage to patients, delegates at a symposium on head and neck cancer in NUI Galway heard recently.

Professor Ivan Keogh, Head of the Academic Department of Otorhinolaryngology at NUI Galway and Consultant Otolaryngologist at Galway University Hospitals, said that head and neck cancers related to the human papilloma virus (HPV) are rising dramatically and are projected to surpass cervical cancer by 2020. “There is a changing nature in the cause of head and neck cancers from traditional heavy smoking and drinking use to HPV. While the survival rate for the latter if very good, these cancers are very disfiguring. Often, treated patients have swallowing and speech problems. We need an awareness campaign so that individuals, as well as their GPs and dentists, become aware of the early symptoms,” said Professor Keogh, who has seen the numbers of cases in his clinic rise dramatically.

Dr Linda Sharp PhD, Senior Epidemiologist with the National Cancer Registry Ireland, announced a new project involving the HRB-funded Irish Cervical Screening Research Consortium collaboration, CERVIVA, in partnership with surgeons and pathologists. Commencing in autumn 2013, the project will see a major investigation of HPV in squamous cell carcinomas of the oropharynx, oral cavity and larynx diagnosed since 1994. This will provide the first population-based data on the epidemiology of HPV infection in head and neck cancer in the Republic of Ireland.

In Ireland, head and neck cancers are the sixth most common cancer in men and the 16th most common in women. With HPV-related head and neck cancer more likely to occur in men than women, it raises the debate about vaccinating boys against this sexually transmitted virus, as is now taking place in Australia. “Australia and Canada are already rolling out vaccination programmes for boys. Ireland will need to consider its position on this in the near future and take a reasoned look at all the factors involved,” said co-organiser Tony O’Connor, Consultant Otolaryngologist, Bon Secours Hospital, Galway.

The event also heard from internationally renowned keynote speakers from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution. Dr Sara Pai and Dr William Westra shared their experiences of the cancer, which has now been deemed an ‘epidemic’ by the American Cancer Society. Dr Brenda Corcoran, HSE National Immunisation Office, concluded the symposium.