* ECDC says HPV vaccine coverage too low in Europe
* Almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV
* Merck and GlaxoSmithKline make HPV vaccines
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, Sept 5 All girls in Europe should be
immunised 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
programmes, 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.
British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline and U.S. rival
Merck & Co make the only two HPV vaccines licensed for
use in Europe.
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 programmes.
"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 programmes is
unlikely to be cost-effective."
U.S. health authorities advised late last year that all boys
should also be routinely vaccinated against HPV.