Rates for cancers linked to a sexually-transmitted virus have increased in the post World War II baby boomer generation according to new research* published in the British Journal of Cancer today (Wednesday February 4).

Researchers looked at data from the Thames Cancer Registry to examine trends for the cancers linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV) – cancers of the anus, vulva, vagina, cervix and penis. Rates for people born in the 1940s and beyond have risen for all these cancers except for penile and cervical cancer and with the largest rise in cases of anal cancer.

Changes in sexual practice and greater exposure to HPV are seen as the most likely cause for these increased rates. HPV is a common infection and is passed from one person to another by sexual contact. Up to three in four people in the UK will be infected with the HPV virus at some time during their lifetime. Most times the virus will be cleared by the body naturally but it is the persistent infections that can sometimes cause cells to become cancerous.

Rates for anal cancer show there has been a continued rise for those born in the 1940s and onward. Rates for women born in the 1960s are more than double the rate for men who were born in the 1960s. These rates are 1.13 for men and 1.19 in 100,000 for women born in the first half of the 1940s. This increased to 1.71 for men and 4.18 in 100,000 for women born in the 1960s.

Vaginal cancer rates have decreased over time but the rate for those born in the 1960s (0.82 in 100,000) is nearly double that of women born in the first half of the 1940s (0.42 in 100,000). The pattern is similar for vulval cancer – with rates of 1.65 rising to 2.51 in 100,000 for those born in the 1960s.

Cervical cancer is the most common of all these cancers. The success of the NHS Screening Programme is responsible for the continued drop in cervical cancer rates. Predictions are for rates to fall in future generations as HPV vaccines become more widely used.

David Robinson, lead researcher based at King’s College London, said: “These results have revealed a snapshot of just how much rates of these cancers have increased in the post war generations. For anal cancer, rates are now higher in women than in men. However, programmes of vaccination against HPV, whilst aimed primarily at reducing the burden of cervical cancer, may also help to reduce the incidence of cancers at these other sites.”

Dr Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer information, said: “It’s important for people to know that the HPV virus can be passed through all forms of intimate sexual contact. Using a condom will lower the risk of exposure to the virus. This research also highlights the success of the NHS cervical cancer screening programme in drastically reducing the rate of cervical cancer. HPV vaccines are an important advance for future generations, but the cervical screening programme remains vitally important in detecting any changes that might lead to cancer. We urge all women to go for screening when they receive their invitation.”

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*An analysis of temporal and generational trends in the incidence of anal and other HPV-related cancers in Southeast England.

Age standardised rate (per 100,000 of the population)

Birth cohort1930193519401945195019551960
Anus (m)0.970.921.131.461.651.811.71
Anus (f)1.080.971.191.742.222.754.18
 Current UK rate* (2005)UK Cases (2005)

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