Girls of 12 may be vaccinated against sex disease

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Girls as young as 12 could be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease which can cause cervical cancer, under plans being studied by the Department of Health.

Schoolgirls could be immunised against the human papilloma virus (HPV) before they become sexually active under an NHS-funded mass vaccination scheme. The virus is one of the main causes of cervical cancer, which kills around 1,000 women a year.

The Government's advisers, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, are studying proposals for the NHS to fund a mass vaccination scheme for girls aged 12 to 13. The jabs could eventually replace the screening programme where women are called in for a smear test every three years to check for early signs of cervical cancer.

The plans are being considered by Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, but will prove controversial among parents. Some fear the vaccines could encourage girls to have unprotected sex at a very young age. Other parents have expressed concerns that children are being overburdened with vaccines.

Injections against HPV, which can cause genital warts, are already given in various US states. The jabs are available in some private clinics in the UK for £450. This summer a girl of 13 became the first to get the vaccine privately in Britain.

Under proposals being considered by the Department of Health, the vaccine would be given in two to three doses by school nurses, with protection lasting about 10 years. But three doses would cost the NHS more than £240, which could prove an obstacle to approval by ministers.