A vaccine against cervical cancer which could save the lives of thousands of women in Greece is to be administered for free on the national health service for girls aged 12 to 13, Health Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos said yesterday. The reason for targeting girls at such a young age is twofold, experts told a press conference yesterday. Firstly, the vaccine is more effective on the immune system at this age. Also the fact that girls are having sex at increasingly younger ages means protection against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer, must begin earlier. About 160,000 girls aged 12 to 13 are to be vaccinated against HPV in the first instance, Avramopoulos said, adding that immigrants or those without social security foundation (IKA) coverage will also be vaccinated for free. «We are the first European country to create a framework of vaccination of the female population with the aim of offering full protection against cervical cancer,» Avramopoulos said. The ministry’s special advisory committee is also recommending vaccination for women aged 14 to 26. But they will have to pay for their shots, which are not cheap. Inoculation takes place in three phases, each costing -185, or a total of -550. The ministry is in negotiations aimed at reducing the price per jab to -100, Avramopoulos said. But for the vaccine to be really effective, experts warned, it must be issued to a far larger proportion of women. «Vaccination has to cover 75-80 percent of the population, which means that we need to find ways to protect more women,» Andreas Constantopoulos, director of the National Vaccination Board, said. Medical experts are warning of a sharp increase in cervical cancer over the next few years if girls do not make greater efforts to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases. «Despite all the warnings and campaigns, youngsters’ behavior suggests that they are not scared. So we fear two explosions over the next 20 years – in AIDS and cervical cancer,» Athens University Professor Chrysoula Panitsa told Kathimerini. Cervical cancer is the second-biggest cancer killer of young women after breast cancer. Doctors estimate that up to half of Greek women aged 22-32 can expect to have a HPV infection at some point.