The US government has agreed to subsidise a national vaccination programme with Merck & Co’s human papillomavirus vaccine Gardasil, aimed at preventing cervical cancer, for children who cannot afford the shot.

Gardasil is designed to protect against four strains of human HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and genital warts, and was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June.

Now, its addition to the Centers for Disease Control’s Vaccines for Children programme means that Gardasil will be available for children aged nine to 18 who are on Medicaid, uninsured or under-insured, according to Merck. The CDC earlier backed routine use of Gardasil in all females aged 11 to 26, and in some cases as young as nine, in July.

Gardasil’s approved dosage regimen is given over a six-month period in three shots, and has a price tag of $360.

The endorsements are good news for Merck, which hopes Gardasil will become a multi-billion dollar earner and alleviate some of the pressure that has followed the withdrawal of its $2 billion painkiller Vioxx (rofecoxib) in 2004.