Head and Neck Cancer: Changing Epidemiology and Public Health Implications
September 15, 2010
Characterizing the epidemiology of head and neck cancers is challenging and has received limited attention in the medical literature. Traditionally, 80%–90% of head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCCs) have been attributed to tobacco and alcohol use, but with growing public awareness and tobacco control efforts over the past few decades, there has been a downward trend in smoking prevalence in the US. There is also emerging evidence that human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for inconsistencies in HNSCC trends, with oncogenic HPV DNA found in approximately half of oropharyngeal cancers and in a high proportion of oropharyngeal cancers in nonsmokers and nondrinkers. The risk to HNSCC epidemiology is that whatever gains continue to be made in tobacco control may become lost in the increasing numbers of oropharyngeal cancers due to HPV. The purpose of this review is to explore the changing epidemiology of HNSCC, focusing on how it has been shaped by health policy and advocacy interventions and how it will continue to have public health implications in the future, particularly in considering preventive strategies against HPV. Given that the majority of HNSCCs are the result of exposure to preventable public health risks, more focus should be given to this area.