Cervical screening programs increasingly use a new kind of test to identify who is most at risk of developing cancer. Such tests are also being trialed in some centres, to help inform the rate at which people at risk of anal cancer should be monitored.

The test is performed on the same sample taken for the anal Pap test.

HPV DNA tests look for tiny quantities of wart viruses. There are many wart virus types, but only a small number cause serious problems in the anus (the so-called “High risk HPV” types). These are:

  • HPV 16 - the virus most commonly associated with anal cancer
  • HPV 18 - the second most common type associated with anal cancer
  • HPV types 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59, 66 & 68 have also been found

Wart viruses are highly infectious, and are present in many people, including those who have never had receptive anal sex. The majority of gay men will have them, and a large minority of heterosexuals, too.

It therefore follows that most people with these viruses never develop anal cancer, as our immune systems are generally quite effective at getting rid of the infections.

The exact role of the tests is still under evaluation, and their interpretation needs to be discussed with a specially trained doctor.