HACKENSACK, N.J. – A federal public health advisory panel on Thursday recommended that girls ages 11 and 12 be routinely vaccinated against a common sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices unanimously endorsed the widespread use of Gardasil, a Merck & Co. vaccine that received approval from the Food and Drug Administration this month for females ages 9 to 26.

The committee’s recommendations are generally accepted by federal and state policymakers, which means Gardasil will likely be added to the list of vaccinations routinely administered to children.

In addition, the committee, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said females ages 13 to 26 who have not been vaccinated against cervical cancer should also be treated.

And that girls as young as 9 could also receive the medicine at their doctor’s discretion.

“This is a historic vote … and a huge breakthrough for women’s health,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, at a press conference.

Cervical cancer is the second most lethal form of cancer worldwide. In the U.S., nearly 10,000 cases are diagnosed each year, and about 3,700 deaths are attributed to the disease, according to the CDC.

Schuchat said the committee also addressed concerns that the vaccination may be too expensive for some by recommending that it be provided free to children who are either eligible for Medicaid or uninsured.

Gardasil, one of the most expensive vaccines on the market, is administered in three doses over a six-month period, with each dose costing $120.

Schuchat reiterated earlier statements by Merck and the FDA, stressing that Gardasil has proved most effective when administered to women prior to when they become sexually active.

Religious conservatives initially balked at the idea of giving the vaccine to adolescent girls, suggesting it could promote promiscuity. But those concerns have subsided as health officials have broadly endorsed the vaccination.

Gardasil is effective only as a preventative treatment, according to Schuchat, and cannot be used against existing cases of cervical cancer.

Merck said shipments of the vaccine are on their way to pediatricians’ offices and will be available any day now.

Gardasil works by targeting four types of a common sexually transmitted disease called human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes most cervical cancers and genital warts.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 20 million people are infected with HPV, making it one of the most common forms of sexually transmitted diseases.

In approving Gardasil, the FDA said the vaccine has proved effective against the two strains of HPV that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers, as well as the two strains that cause 90 percent of genital warts.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is made up of independent specialists who report their findings to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The American Academy of Pediatrics uses the recommendations in adopting guidelines for standard practice, and insurance providers rely on the findings to decide on coverage.

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