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Health: Oral Cancer Detection

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the General Dental Council to raise the priority accorded to oral cancer detection and for its inclusion as a recommended topic in the list of subjects for continuing professional development.

My Lords, yes, the department will be raising this issue with the General Dental Council. I understand that the General Dental Council is currently at the early stages of reviewing its continuing professional development requirements for registrants and plans to hold a formal public consultation on its draft proposals, probably in the first half of 2012.

That is a very helpful Answer because the profession wants to see that. As the Minister knows, I have encouraged the continuous inspection of people’s mouths whenever they present for some other cause. The really important thing is that when they are referred up, the person seeing that patient knows what the position is. In view of the report last week about the vast increase in hepatitis among young people due to alcohol, will the Minister comment on whether he thinks there is a parallel with our 2009 debate, when that was raised as a factor in the great increase in mouth cancer among young people?

My noble friend is quite right that the worrying feature of oral cancer is that it is increasingly appearing in the young. The risk factors that have been identified for oral cancer are primarily smoking and consumption of alcohol, but particularly the two combined. It is important that we get to grips with this. A number of public health campaigns are in train, certainly on smoking, and our alcohol strategy is due out very shortly, which will also address drinking among the young.

My Lords, does the Minister think that HPV and HIV can be first detected in the mouth by dentists, and does he not think that dentists should have more training?

My Lords, my understanding is that HIV needs to be fairly far advanced before it manifests itself in the mouth. However, the noble Baroness is absolutely right with regard to HPV—human papilloma virus—because since 2009 there has been further research suggesting a link between HPV and oral cancer. There is now a sufficient evidence base to suggest that infection with HPV is a risk factor, particularly for the soft tissues at the back of the mouth. Her point about dentists picking this up is very well made. My understanding is that dentists are very much on the lookout for these symptoms.

My Lords, according to Macmillan Cancer Support, mean survival times for cancers of the stomach, oesophagus, pancreas, brain and lung have barely increased in the last 40 years. These cancers account for 39 per cent of all cancer deaths, but attract only 13 per cent of all cancer research funding. Does the Minister think this is a satisfactory balance and, if not, can he tell us how the Government might be able to help remedy the situation?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is not satisfactory. However, the position with research funding from government sources is that proposals are evaluated on the basis of merit; there is no predisposition to any particular kind of research as long as it is high quality. Both the MRC and my department, with the National Institute for Health Research, are open to proposals of high quality to address unmet areas of research.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, because I answered Questions that she asked on this issue in my time. She has shown great persistence and no small amount of success in pushing this issue along. I would like to ask the Minister a question about smoking, because, as he rightly says, smoking is a factor in the incidence of mouth cancer. In the public awareness campaign about tobacco and tobacco regulations, are the Government including the implications of mouth cancer?

Yes, we are continuing to invest in tobacco control activities. The noble Baroness will know that in March, we published our tobacco control plan for England, which sets out a range of action points. We are running marketing communications campaigns, with a campaign currently on television. In the new year, we will be making Quit Kits available through pharmacies across England; in the spring, we will run a campaign to highlight the risks of exposure to second-hand smoke and to encourage smokers to make their homes and family cars smoke-free.