Jaime Winstone warns people about oral sex cancer risk

Actress Jaime Winstone is warning young people about the risk of getting cancer through oral sex and is promoting a vaccine which can prevent it.

In a new BBC Three documentary the 25-year-old looks at the issue and what young people can do to make themselves safer.

The latest figures from the National Cancer Intelligence Network suggest there are around 800 cases of human papillomavirus (HPV) related oral cancer a year in the UK, with the majority of cases diagnosed in men.

Newsbeat asked Professor Margaret Stanley from the department of pathology at the University of Cambridge about the facts behind HPV and oral cancer.

What is HPV?

HPV is a very common virus. There are more than 100 types.

The virus lives on our skin or in skin like areas so it can be found in the mouth, genital areas and anus.

Lots of people are infected with HPV, including the strains which can cause cancer, and often our immune systems will just naturally protect us from the virus and prevent it from developing into something more serious.

However, some people have immune systems which for whatever reason can't treat the virus and this can lead to it changing cells in the body which in turn may lead cancer.

What is HPV related oral cancer?

HPV related oral cancer affects the throat and is often diagnosed in the tongue or tonsils.

How can you get it?

HPV can be passed by skin to skin and genital contact.

It is most often passed during vaginal and anal sex. However, as HPV can live in your mouth, anus and genital areas it can be passed through oral sex.

There are two types or strains of HPV which are most likely to cause cancer - HPV-16 and HPV-18.

HPV-16 is thought to be responsible for around 60% of cervical cancers, 80% of cancers in the anus and 60% of oral cancers.

Doctors cannot control the virus and can't predict if people will get the virus.

However, if you have a lot of sexual partners you are more likely to be infected with HPV and if your immune system cannot naturally get rid of the virus it can put you at risk.

How do you prevent it?

By having the HPV vaccine or changing your sexual behaviour.

Realistically doctors acknowledge that people will have oral sex.

If you have a normal amount of partners the risk of HPV developing into something like cancer would not be as high as someone who had an extremely large number of partners.

Can you get a vaccine?

The government vaccinates young women aged 12 to 13 against HPV.

The vaccine involves three injections over six months and can be given to people before they get infected.

Professor Stanley thinks the vaccine should be available to both men and women as many doctors believe the vaccine will offer protect to both sexes from HPV related cancers.

However, in the documentary David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation, said the government had no current plans to extend the scheme.

He asked whether there was enough evidence to suggest that vaccinating thousands of boys a year would be cost effective.

The vaccine is available for men or older women but you would have to pay for it privately.

Does the vaccine protect you from getting it?

The way the vaccine works is that it builds a person's immunity to the two main cancer causing strains, HPV-16 and HPV-18.

Both strains can be prevented by having the HPV vaccine. The vaccine means the virus can not get into cells and change them.

Is there a cure?

No. You can only prevent HPV related oral cancer by either by having the vaccine or by changing your sexual behaviour.

However, doctors say HPV related oral cancers respond better to treatment than any other types of cancer in the throat, head and neck.

Jaime Winstone decided to take part in the film after a close friend died from colon cancer, which made her want to find out more about different types of cancer and how young people can protect themselves better.

The programme Is Oral Sex Safe? is on BBC Three at 9pm on Monday 10 January.

Is Oral Sex Safe?: Find out more about the BBC Three programme