The Government today began offering thousands of girls across Northern Ireland the chance to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted infection which can cause cervical cancer.
Thousands of parents are now set to consider the moral debate raised by the vaccine which some fear will lead to lax sexual practices in young girls.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, this morning launched the Department of Health’s programme to immunise girls against the Humanpapillomavirus (HPV) which is spread through sexual activity and can cause cervical cancer.
Starting today, the vaccine, which protects against the two strains of HPV that cause around 70% of cervical cancer cases, will be routinely offered to girls aged 12-13 in schools.
Speaking at the launch of the programme in St Joseph's College, Belfast, Dr McBride said the vaccine was ultimately about saving lives.
“Cervical cancer kills around 40 women every year in Northern Ireland and touches the lives of many more. The HPV vaccine is a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer and will help prevent young women from developing a potentially deadly disease,” he said.
“Girls aged 12-13 will be offered the vaccine this autumn, while a catch-up programme will make the vaccine available to girls aged 13-18 over the next three years.
“Ultimately this vaccination programme is about saving lives and preventing the suffering, distress and anxiety caused by cancer. I would encourage all parents to give consent for their child to have the vaccine.
“Parents will shortly be receiving, if they have not already, information about when the vaccination programme will commence in their child's school. If they do have any concerns they can speak to the school health team or their GP.”
Northern Ireland’s five health and social care trusts will work with their local education authorities and schools to implement the programme.
In addition to the routine programme, girls aged 17-18 (those born between 2 July 1990 and 1 July 1991) will also be able to receive the vaccine through their GP surgery from September 2008. These girls would have otherwise been excluded from the HPV programme as the catch up programme aimed at older girls up to the age of 18 will not commence until september 2009.
The Cervarix vaccine works by targeting HPV, the virus which causes the cancer. Its manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, said it should prevent 70% of cases.
The vaccine only guards against two strains of HPV and not other sexual transmitted diseases or, of course, pregnancy.
There was some controversy over the Government’s decision to select Cervarix over another vaccine, Gardasil. Some experts argue Gardasil would have been a better option because it targets four strains of HPV — two responsible for cervical cancer and two causing genital warts.
But Dr Lorraine Doherty of the Department of Health stressed that the programme’s main priority is tackling cervical cancer.
Opposition to the vaccine has come mainly from some Christian groups who are concerned the jab may encourage promiscuity.
Colin Hart, director of The Christian Institute, said the way to tackle the problem was not to offer injections, but to tell girls not to have under-age sex.
Pip Jaffa of the Parents Advice Centre in Belfast said parents should welcome the vaccine so long as they can make a fully informed decision on whether their daughter should get it.