How Michael Douglas’ Cancer Revelation Could Change the World

In a rather remarkable interview that is making the round on celebrity rags, actor (and UN Messenger of Peace) Michael Douglas says that the throat cancer from which he’s recently recovered was caused not by drinking or smoking, but from oral sex.

Via the Guardian

The throat cancer, I assume, was first seeded during those wild middle years, when he drank like a fish and smoked like the devil. Looking back, knowing what he knows now, does he feel he overloaded his system?

“No,” he says. “No. Because, without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.”

From what? For a moment I think that I may have misheard.

“From cunnilingus. I mean, I did worry if the stress caused by my son’s incarceration didn’t help trigger it. But yeah, it’s a sexually transmitted disease that causes cancer.”

HPV is the only sexually transmitted infection that is known to cause cancer. It is mostly known for causing cervical cancer in women, but it can be transmitted via oral sex. According the US Centers for Disease Control about 60%  Oropharyngeal cancers can be linked to HPV.

In other words, men like Michael Douglas can get throat cancer from sexual partners. And it would appear that many do.  According to the CDC, “more than 12,000 HPV-associated cancers occur each year in men; oropharyngeal cancers are the most common.”

Still, this is a virus that mostly targets women. 22,000 women get cervical cancer in the USA each year. Around the world, the toll is even worse. According to the World Health Organization, HPV linked cervical cancer afflicts 529,000 women. 275,000 women die each year from cervical cancer. More than 85% of these deaths are in the developing world.

HPV can be effectively controlled through a simple vaccine. Here in the United States, though, social conservatives have criticized the vaccine, suggesting that giving the vaccine to adolescent girls promotes promiscuity. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman even suggested that the vaccine is linked to mental retardation. In 2010, only about 30% of American girls aged 13 to 17 received all three recommended doses.

In the developing world, access to the vaccine has been virtually nil in part because of the high cost of the vaccine. That’s about to change.  Earlier this year, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, a Gates Foundation backed public-private partnership negotiated a huge discount for the HPV vaccine in Africa and elsewhere. They’ve dropped the price to about $4.50/dose (compared to over $100/dose in the United States) and last month the GAVI-backed HPV Vaccine rollouts launched in some Sub Saharan African countries. GAVI estimates  that over 30 million girls in more than 40 countries will be immunized by 2020.


That’s a good start. But the goal of HPV vaccine — like Polio and other vaccine preventable illnesses — ought to be universal coverage. What makes Michael Douglas’ revelation so significant is that it takes people out of the mindset that HPV is a women’s disease. That’s important because when global health challenges are siloed as women’s issues, they tend to receive less funding and less political support. If policy makers come to learn that even an Alpha Male like Gordon Gekko can get cancer-linked HPV, we may see more support for global HPV programs.