From September next year English school girls aged 12 to 13 will be routinely vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV) to protect them from cervical cancer, the UK's Department of Health has announced.
The decision to vaccinate girls in Year 8, at a cost of up to £100 million a year, follows advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. There will also be a two-year "catch-up" campaign starting in autumn 2009 for girls aged up to 18, costing up to £200 million a year.
Professor David Salisbury, the Department of Health's director of immunisation, said: "The benefits of introducing this vaccine into the national immunisation programme will be felt by women and their families for generations to come." It is hoped that the vaccination will save up to 400 lives each year.
Two HPV jabs are licensed for use: Gardasil, made by Merck & Co and Sanofi Pasteur, and Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline. Both vaccinations prevent infection with the most common cancer-causing strains of HPV.
Didier Hoch, president of Sanofi Pasteur MSD, said: "This is very good news for girls and young women in the UK. We are committed to supporting the Department of Health to implement this recommendation."
No decision has yet been made, however, on which vaccine will be used in the programme, although ministers have already said that they intend to negotiate a reduction in vaccine price during the procurement process.
Experts stressed that smear testing will need to continue after the vaccine is introduced, partly because the jab does not protect against all cancer-causing strains of HPV. Health minister Ann Keen said the vaccine would be given to girls by their doctor or at school. Three doses of the HPV vaccine over a six month period are needed for protection.
Ms Keen said vaccination would not be compulsory because this would be too "difficult" with a vaccination of this nature. Her comments follow suggestions in certain areas of the conservative Press that protecting pre-pubescent girls against a sexually transmitted disease might encourage promiscuity.
Ms Keen said: "We have the backing of parents. I can't see why anybody wouldn't want their child to have this vaccination. This is about preventing cancer. It is not about sexual activity and promoting it."Each year, more than 2,700 British women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and around 200,000 women a year also have pre-cancerous changes to their cervix picked up through smear tests.
Leading cervical cancer expert Dr Anne Szarewski, of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, said: "A vaccination programme against cervical cancer is great news. It is even more heartening to see that they have decided on a catch-up programme for 13 to 17 year olds, as this means that we will see results in the form of fewer abnormal smears within the next ten years."
Some experts had called for boys to get the jab because they can pass HPV on to un-vaccinated partners, including same-sex partners. But the Joint Committee said vaccinating boys would not be cost effective. By Michael Day