Page last updated at 15:41 GMT, Wednesday, 20 June 2007 16:41 UK

Panel endorses girls' cancer jab

Girls aged 12 would receive the jab, if it is approved

All girls aged between 12 and 13 in the UK should be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer, a government panel has recommended.

The government said it accepted the advice "in principle", but would have to decide if it was financially viable.

The Scottish Executive however said it hoped to start immunising by late 2008.

It is thought the programme could save hundreds of lives each year, although experts warn it could be 20 years before the first benefits are seen.

This is a huge step forward in preventing cancer
Dr David Salisbury
Department of Health

It will also prove expensive, costing around £250 for three doses over six months.

However, campaigners say it represents value for money given how effective it is in combating the strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) which are held responsible for 70% of cervical cancer cases.

The disease kills 274,000 women worldwide every year, including 1,120 in the UK.

Dr David Salisbury, Director of Immunisation at the Department of Health, described the recommendation as "good news".

The vaccine was "a huge step forward in preventing cancer", he said.

There are two vaccine possibilities: Gardasil, made by Merck and Sanofi Pasteur, has already been approved in 76 countries, while Cervarix is expected to be launched in Europe later this year.

Pre-emptive strike

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) examined the evidence surrounding the vaccines before concluding that 12-and 13-year-old girls should all be immunised.

The main benefits won't be seen until decades down the line
Dr David Elliman

But it did not, as some had hoped, call for a "catch-up" programme which would include all those up to the age of 16.

The vaccine is most effective when it is administered to girls before they become sexually active and come into contact with the virus.

Some have expressed concerns that providing a jab to protect against a sexually transmitted infection to children at a young age might encourage promiscuity.

But in a Manchester University study of parents' attitudes, only a minority of those asked expressed concern about the sexual implications. The report concluded that most - if convinced the jab was safe and effective - would support the vaccine.

In any event, parents would have the final say as to whether their child received the injection.

Strings attached

The Tories have accused the government of dragging its feet on the issue, noting that many countries had already approved the vaccine.

Switzerland gave it the green light this week, following on the heels of Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Norway, Luxembourg and Belgium. It has also been approved in Australia and several US states.

Following the announcement from the JCVI, health minister Caroline Flint said she was "delighted to announce that we intend, in principle, to introduce an HPV vaccine into the national immunisation programme".

But there were conditions, a Department of Health statement added. The programme would have to undergo an "independent peer review of the cost-benefit analysis", and funding for it would be "considered in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review".

The Scottish Executive said it planned to move quickly.

"It is our intention for funding for this to be included in our forthcoming spending review and we will aim to implement by autumn 2008."

The programme will be expensive.

The three doses a girl needs will cost more than all her childhood immunisations put together, said Dr David Elliman, a consultant In Community Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital For Children.

"It will be a big, long-term investment," he said. "The main benefits won't be seen until decades down the line, as these girls become women, but we will, eventually, get our money back."

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