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NHS applies logic to claims that multiple sexual partners prevent prostate cancer

Straight out of the folder marked 'If Only' comes a report released to the media earlier this week claiming to prove that having sex with over 20 different partners considerably reduces the risk of prostate cancer.

Even at the time I hesistated to give much credence to this claim, tempting as the idea might be, partly because my eye was caught by the cold precision of that number 20.

To me it read more like a target than an observation.

Then further in the report I noticed the claim was even more specific, and only applied to men having sex with fact it seemed to indicate that the opposite was true for gay men where the risk 'doubled' if you have sex with more than twenty other men.

Now, I am no expert, but something about the concept of cancer cells that keep account of their unfortunate host's sexual activity and then differentiate and identify not only the gender of a sexual partner, but discriminate one from another in order to keep a tally, made my brain spin.

So I left the report where it lay, though when the headlines appeared in the papers over the following days I admit did take the opportunity to suggest to Mrs Benson that she and I might well be endangering my future wellbeing by adhering to the standard monogamous sexual etiquette, but she remained unimpressed.

Not half so unimpressed as the NHS commentary on the report as published on their Choices website.

The mainstream press came under criticism for their sensational headlines and lack of understanding, the author even questioning whether the journalists had read past the headlines on the press release.

The rebuttal explained that, if the quantity and nature of sexual activity were a factor, we would expect to see a gradual improvement over time with each encounter, instead the survey shows no impact on the general condition at all until the 21st new sexual partner.

This would imply that, in order to benefit from any reduction in risk, one would have to have sex with at least 20 different people; 17, 18 or 19 would be as ineffective as 12 or 13.

Even more unlikely was the suggested correlation between male to male sex where the 1st to 20th partners showed no increased risk but the 21st actually doubled the risk.

The authors of the survey, Professors Marie-Elise Parent and Marie-Claude Rousseau of Montreal University's School of Public Health, try to defend their results with speculation that "It could come from greater exposure to STIs, or it could be that anal intercourse produces physical trauma to the prostate".

Except that only 12% of their entire sample said they had ever contracted any STI and it is hard to believe that, if prostate trauma is caused by anal sex, it takes twenty different sexual partners to experience it even assuming that the gay men in the sample had anal sex with every partner.

As to the reduced risk for men sleeping with so many women the professors suggested that constant and repeated ejaculation might produce some sort of protection, but that would not require 21 different partners ( or indeed any partners at all) and would surely apply as much to the gay members of the group.

I'm afraid I'm totally with the NHS on this one, the Montreal research team - despite their valiant and laudable efforts - fails to convince that they have anything more than an anomalous result (but don't tell Mrs Benson I said that).


Sources: NHSChoices et al.



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