Page last updated at 11:47 GMT, Friday, 26 October 2007 12:47 UK

Schoolgirls to get 'cancer jab'

Human papillomavirus
HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer

Schoolgirls in Britain will be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer from September 2008, ministers have announced.

This goes further than recommended by experts, with all aged 12-13 eligible, and a catch-up campaign up to 18.

It is thought that vaccinating against human papilloma virus (HPV) could save hundreds of lives in the UK each year.

The vaccine is given in three injections over six months at a cost of around £300 a course.

Earlier this year the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended routine vaccination for 11 to 12-year olds, including the possibility of a catch-up campaign - but only up to the age of 16.

The whole point of vaccinations is to give the jab before exposure to the virus, so it has to be done reasonably young
Jo Hanley, UK

But the government wanted further evidence on the cost benefits of a programme before making a final decision.

In England the programme will start initially in 12 to 13-year olds, with plans to vaccinate those up to the age of 18 from autumn 2009.

Wales and Scotland have announced similar plans, and Northern Ireland will also be carrying out vaccination in 12-year olds but has yet to finalise the details.

It will most likely be done in schools but individual primary care trusts will be responsible for working out how to implement vaccination.

Two vaccines have been developed - Gardasil, made by Merck and Sanofi Pasteur, which has been approved in 76 countries, and Cervarix, made by GSK and launched in the UK recently.

The committee had not made a recommendation as to which of the vaccines should be used.

Killer disease

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 parents would have the final say as to whether their child received the injection.

Sarah Lotzof is a GP at Dedicated Doctors, a private clinic that has been offering the vaccine. She told BBC Radio 5 Live the vaccines were needed.

"It is a huge breakthrough for our younger generation," she said.

"We can stop possibly 85% of people who would have died of cancer dying - and at the moment over 1,000 women are dying of this disease in this country now."

About 80% of sexually active women can expect to have an HPV infection at some point in their lives.

It is held responsible for some 70% of cervical cancer cases, a disease which kills 274,000 women worldwide every year, including 1,120 in the UK.

European approval

In an editorial published last year, the Lancet called for mandatory vaccination against HPV for girls in all EU member states once they are 11 or 12.

Other European countries including Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Norway, Luxembourg and Belgium have approved a vaccination programme.

Experts said the programme would be more expensive than all other childhood immunisations and the benefits would not be seen for decades, but eventually it would be worth the cost.

Health secretary Alan Johnson said: "As a society we need to do more to prevent disease and not just treat it.

"Now, more than ever before, we need to make the NHS a service that prevents ill health and prioritises keeping people well."

He added that 400 lives could potentially be saved each year, with many women prevented from getting HPV in the first place.

Pamela Morton, director of cervical cancer charity Jo's Trust, said she was absolutely delighted at the news.

"It's exactly what we wanted and it goes beyond our expectations. I'm delighted for young women and their parents."

Dr Loretta Brabin, Reader in Women's Health, University of Manchester, said they were working with two primary care trusts to pilot the vaccination programme ahead of national roll-out.

"So far we have not encountered any major obstacles to parental acceptance of vaccination.

"Parent's main concern is long term safety, and while many do not think their daughters will be at risk of HPV just yet, most understand the need for vaccinating at an early age," she said.

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