LONDON (Reuters) - All girls in Europe should be immunized against the human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes cervical cancer and current vaccine coverage rates are far too low, European Union health officials said on Wednesday.
In new advice about tackling the virus, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that while 19 out of 29 countries in the region had introduced HPV vaccine programs, vaccination rates were as low as 17 percent in some.
Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women worldwide, with about 500,000 new cases and 250,000 deaths each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Virtually all cases are linked to genital infection with HPV, the most common viral infection of the reproductive tract.
Merck's Gardasil targets four strains of HPV - two responsible for cervical cancer and two that cause the less serious condition of genital warts - while GSK's Cervarix shot targets only the two cancer strains.
The ECDC said that in 2010, only Portugal and Britain had vaccination coverage rates above 80 percent for the target groups of girls aged between about 10 and 14 years.
It urged health authorities to step up their efforts to get more girls vaccinated, saying recent research studies had shown the shots to be safe and effective, as well as cost-effective.
"We public health authorities, frontline healthcare workers and parents alike have a shared responsibility to protect thousands of women from cervical cancer," said Marc Sprenger, the ECDC's director.
"European countries may need to examine why HPV vaccination coverage rates ... are not higher and strengthen their vaccination campaigns accordingly."
A study published last year found that using Cervarix to protect girls against HPV virus is so effective that health authorities who get good coverage rates could start to reduce the need for later cervical screening.
While recent studies have also shown that HPV shots can also help protect boys from various types of cancer - including oral, anal and penile cancers - the ECDC said its recommendations did not as yet seek to include young men in vaccination programs.
"The personal benefit of the vaccine for men in terms of cancer prevention is very low," it said in a statement. "Including boys in the current HPV vaccination programs is unlikely to be cost-effective."
U.S. health authorities advised late last year that all boys should also be routinely vaccinated against HPV. [ID:nN1E79O102]
(Editing by Ben Hirschler and Mark Potter)