Since the 1970s there has been a massive surge in the incidence of anal cancer in the UK, the majority of which is likely down to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV).

According to figures published by Cancer Research UK this week, between 1975-1977 and 2009-2011 overall rates of the disease rocketed 299% from 0.4 to 1.5 cases per 100,000 of the population.

But delving deeper into the figures has shown that the rise was much higher in women (374% rise) than in men (202% rise).

An increasing prevalence of HPV has been highlighted as the main driver of this rise in anal cancer, being responsible for 90% of cases. 

The charity notes that changing sexual attitudes since the 70s, and an associated rise in heterosexual couples having anal intercourse, could help explain the growing number of women developing the disease, but it also stressed that HPV is a very common virus and any sexual activity can boost the risk of passing on the infection to a partner.

“We don’t fully understand the reason for the difference between men and women, but we do know HPV and smoking are strong risk factors for the disease," said Cancer Research UK’s head of statistics Nick Ormiston-Smith.

"Changes in sexual attitudes mean people are increasingly exposed to the virus. We’re not suggesting people take a vow of celibacy, but HPV vaccination, using a condom and being a non-smoker can all help to reduce the risk," added Jessica Kirby, the charity's senior health information manager.