LONDON All girls aged 12 to 13 in England will be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, the government said on Friday.
From next autumn, girls will receive three injections at school over six months in a move that could save up to 400 lives each year, the Department of Health said.
Teenagers up to the age 18 will also be vaccinated during a one-off programme lasting two years. The scheme is also expected to be adopted in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"As a society, we need to do more to prevent disease and not just treat it," Health Secretary Alan Johnson said in a statement.
The move is a boost for drugmakers Merck & Co and Sanofi-Aventis, which jointly market the vaccine Gardasil. GlaxoSmithKline offers another cervical cancer vaccine, Cervarix.
The Department of Health has not decided which of the two drugs it will buy, but said it was unlikely that it would use both at the same time.
"It is highly likely it will be one or the other," the department's Director of Immunisation, Professor David Salisbury, told a news conference.
Britain is the latest European country to offer the vaccine routinely to girls, following similar moves by Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and Norway.
Many other countries around the world have also opted for vaccination, on the basis the investment will save lives and healthcare costs in the years ahead.
Gardasil and Cervarix work by cutting the risk of infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions, as well as genital warts.
The injections are given to young girls because the vaccines do not work once a patient is already infected.