A vaccine against a sexually transmitted infection linked to cervical cancer, which could be offered to Ulster schoolgirls from next year, offers greater protection against the deadly disease than previously thought, it has been claimed.
Sanofi Pasteur, the manufacturer behind the Gardasil jab, said it has found that its drug guards against 10 additional strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which triggers most cases of cervical cancer.
The company's medical director, Nicholas Kitchin, said the development would be the "icing on the cake" for Ulster schoolgirls if Gardasil is the chosen brand for a new vaccination programme scheduled to begin in the next school year.
Health Minister Michael McGimpsey confirmed in June that the vaccine for girls aged around 12 - which reduces cases of cervical cancer by up to 70% - is planned to be introduced into Northern Ireland's annual immunisation programme.
More than 3,000 women across the United Kingdom, mostly aged 15 to 44, are diagnosed with cervical cancer every year - around 90 of those in Northern Ireland. A third of those women die within a year.
At present, there are two vaccines designed to be used in a programme - Gardasil and Cervarix, made by GlaxoSmithKline.
Mr Kitchin said Gardasil was initially shown to guard against four strains of HPV, which cause 75% of cervical cases in Europe.
"Basically, a lot of these types of virus are related and we know now that Gardasil offers cross protection against 10 others. These 10 additional types of HPV cause approximately 16% extra of cases of cervical cancer in Europe.
"If Gardasil is the vaccine of choice when Northern Ireland begins its immunisation, this will be the icing on the cake for girls who receive it by offering even greater protection.
"It's too early to say, but we would be hopeful this would save even more lives."
Mr Kitchin's claims come after a study by the Health Protection Agency in England estimated that at least 10% of young women there have caught one or more strains of HPV by the age of 16.
The authors of the research also warned of a "substantial risk" of young girls having an HPV infection by the age of 14.