ATLANTA -- An influential government advisory panel yesterday recommended that 11- and 12-year-old girls be routinely vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices also said the shots can be started for girls as young as 9, at the discretion of their doctors.
Some health officials had girded themselves for arguments from conservatives that vaccinating girls against the sexually transmitted virus might make them more likely to have sex. But the controversy never materialized in the panel's hearings.
Still, some conservatives expressed fear that the panel's vote might lead some states to make the vaccine mandatory for youngsters entering school.
The committee's recommendations usually are accepted by federal health officials and influence insurance coverage for vaccinations. After the vote, at least one large health insurer -- WellPoint Inc. -- announced it will cover the vaccine.
The recommendation involves Gardasil, which is made by
Health officials estimate that more than 50 percent of sexually active women and men will be infected with one or more types of HPV in their lifetimes.
Vaccine proponents say it could dramatically reduce the nearly 4,000 cervical cancer deaths in the United States each year.
The vaccine is considered most effective when given to girls before they become sexually active. About 7 percent of children have had sexual intercourse before age 13, and about a quarter of boys and girls have had sex by age 15, according to government surveys.
The committee also voted to add the HPV vaccine to the coverage list for the federal Vaccines for Children program, which pays for immunizations for the poor. That could mean more than $400 million in additional spending in the first year, government officials said.
Merck officials said that in the past 18 months they met with several conservative and religious groups to educate them about the vaccine and the illnesses it is designed to prevent.
Earlier this year, the Family Research Council, a conservative group, did not speak out against giving the HPV shot to young girls. The organization mainly opposes making it one of the vaccines required before youngsters can enroll in school, said the group's policy analyst, Moira Gaul.
The government advisory panel did not recommend that the vaccine be required by schools, though some organizations -- including Planned Parenthood -- have advocated such a step.
The vaccine comes as a $360 series of three shots, and in tests has been highly effective against HPV. The vaccine is formulated to address the subtypes of HPV responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of genital warts.
The panel focused on 11- to 12-year-olds in part because children that age already routinely get two other shots.
Several speakers also called for the immunization of boys, as soon as studies are completed on the vaccine's safety and effectiveness for males.