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Sex, politics and the stigma over the HPV vaccine

Actor Michael Douglas highlighted the link between oral sex and cancer in an interview this week, bringing awareness to a topic often ignored and rarely address
A bottle of the HPV vaccination. (File photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A bottle of the HPV vaccination.

Actor Michael Douglas highlighted the link between oral sex and cancer in an interview this week, bringing awareness to a topic often ignored and rarely addressed in public.

In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, the “Behind the Candelabra” star suggested the type of throat cancer he suffered from was “caused by something called HPV, which actually comes about from cunnilingus.” The Oscar winner added,But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer.”

Certain strains of the human papillomavirus, an STD more commonly referred to as HPV, have been known to cause cancer, according to government health officials. The HPV link to cervical cancer in women is widely reported, but the virus also causes penile, anal and mouth and neck-related cancers.

According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the rate of HPV-related head, neck and throat cancer skyrocketed by 225% between 1988 and 2004.

Dr. Hilda Hucherson, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and associate dean at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, suggested that a specific time period in social history seemed to have prompted the jump in HPV cases.

Coming off the sexual revolution of the 1970s, Americans began to talk more openly about sexual experiences, Dr. Hutcherson told msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell in a Very Last Word web exclusive video. “At that particular time, I think everybody was talking about this new experience that people can have.”

Approximately 80% of men and women will get the HPV virus at some point during their lifetimes. Even after all these years, a sense of guilt and shame remain around the HPV virus, particularly among conservatives; there's a belief that getting vaccinated (or having your teenagers vaccinated) against the sexually-transmitted disease somehow invites or promotes promiscuity.

The HPV vaccine became the center of debate on multiple occasions during the Republican presidential primary in 2012. Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a few political punches over his attempt to mandate the HPV vaccine for girls through an executive order, though the state's legislature later nixed it. Uber conservative Rick Santorum opposed "having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government." Tea Party Congresswoman Michele Bachmann called the HPV vaccine a "dangerous drug” that can cause “mental retardation.”

The medical community quickly debunked her claims, forcing Bachmann to backtrack.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends both girls and boys receive the vaccine. But only 50% of girls and 2% of boys actually get it.

“You can have one partner, and you can have one sexual experience with one partner and still get HPV," warned Hutcherson. “Anytime you have an experience with another person, an intimate experience, there's a possibility that you will get the virus.”