The Welsh Assembly has announced that it will spend £9 million on accelerating the expansion of the cervical cancer vaccination programme in Wales.

Under the plans, all girls born between September 1, 1991, and August 31, 1995, will be given the human papillomavirus jab in the coming school year (2009/10), so that 40,000 extra will receive protection against the disease.

“HPV vaccination is a very significant public health development and I would like Wales to press ahead by undertaking the catch-up campaign more quickly than planned,” said Health Minister Edwina Hart. However, she stressed vaccination will not protect against all HPV infections, so stressed the importance of attending screening when called.

The move follows the success of the inaugural routine vaccination programme in Wales, which kicked off in the Autumn of last year in girls aged 12-13 years old, under which almost 90% of girls in the age group have received their first vaccine.

Earlier screening in England?
Meanwhile, campaigners marched on Downing Street yesterday afternoon to hand over a petition containing thousands of signatures to lower the age of cervical cancer screening in England to 18.

In England women are only invited for regular screening when they reach 25 years of age, but in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland smears start at the of 20.

Campaigners argue that the time girls are most sexually active – in the 20-24 age bracket – is the time they are most likely to pick up the HPV virus and so should be screened from a much earlier age.

Health Minister Ann Keen has asked the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening to assess the potential benefits and risks of expanding the cervical cancer programme to women aged 20 to 24.

Cervical cancer screening saves around 4,500 lives every year, but while the programme in England “is internationally recognised as world class”, Keen says the government wants to “ensure that our programme remains in the best interests of young women”.

Cancer Research has welcomed the move. “It is vital to consider any evidence that might suggest it's more appropriate to screen women under the age of 25 in England” said director of cancer information Lesley Walker.