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There's national uproar because doctors suggest there's actually a very good way of preventing cervical cancer amongst sexually active youngsters. Why all the fuss asks Lynn Hawthorne?

My husband had to see a specialist recently who attributed part of his problem to an operation he had as a child.

"The trouble with the stomach is that it's not designed to have hands shoved into it," he explained.

'How I wish gynaecologists would remember that!' I thought to myself.

For any woman, an internal examination is something dreaded, even feared, and the overwhelming sense of relief when it's over and the results come back negative is palpable. The smear test has been around since 1964 and is directly responsible for the fall in the number of deaths due to cervical cancer. The National Screening Programme conducts 4.4 million tests per year and is estimated to save around 5000 lives annually in the UK.

So the news that a vaccine called Gardasil has been developed to protect females from the second most common cancer in women under 35 years old should surely be greeted with jubilation? Well, the respected medical journal The Lancet thinks so and has called for Europe to follow the lead of the US state of Michigan, which passed a bill on September 21st ruling that all 11 to 12-year old girls should be immunised. The Lancet also takes it a stage further and suggests that all adolescents should be vaccinated, as boys also carry HPV (human papillomavirus) that can trigger the disease.

But critics have warned that the jabs could encourage underage sex. How on earth do they reach that conclusion? HPV is a sexually transmitted virus it is true, but not necessarily as a result of the number of sexual partners. Women with only one lifelong sexual partner have developed the disease. There are other reasons why it develops, such as a weakened immune system due to smoking, poor diet and HIV or long-term use of the Pill. Most women who are sexually active will have had HPV at some time, which is common, but the immune system usually deals with it. Of the 100 types of HPV, only about four types actually develop into cancer, but still around 2,800 women are diagnosed each year.

Cervical cancer has been designated as having 5 stages and researchers record success as a ‘5 Year Survival Rate', which doesn't mean that women only live for a maximum of five years after contracting the disease, but refers to a research period during which statistics are collated. At Stage 0, virtually all women survive and Stages 1 and 2 have a survival rate between 60 and 90%. It is the latter stages, where the disease has either progressed or not been caught early enough, where the prognosis is not so positive: Stage 3 is between 30 and 50% survival, while Stage 4 falls to 20-30%. This amounts to roughly 1120 deaths per year.

If, of those 1120 women, 840 could be saved by the Gardasil inoculation, what are we waiting for? I hardly think that young girls will necessarily leap to the conclusion that having this injection at age 11 will allow them to jump into bed with any Tom or Harry or any other male, come to that, and be completely protected from all results of sexual activity, early or otherwise. It is completely and utterly wrong to blame any rise in teenage pregnancy on the availability of medicine and I am appalled to believe that these ‘critics' are willing to risk the lives of young women - even their own daughters - on a so-called moral stance.

If these people want to curb sexual activity in the young, they need to consider the influences that our youth are subjected to and crusade against those instead. Any trawl of the music channels on cable or satellite television will reveal scantily-clad women gyrating provocatively in pseudo-sexual fashion or being subjected to male domination as part of certain music cultures. And before you think that I've just turned into my mother or ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells', let me tell you that, as a primary school teacher, I have lost count of the number of times I have been prevailed upon by parents to ‘talk sense' to their daughters about clothes for school discos and have been saddened that some male members of staff felt uncomfortableto the extent that they could no longer attend such events in case their good name was besmirched by budding Lolitas emulating their chart heroines.

Frequent changing of sexual partners is a common theme in TV soaps, watched by kids as young as 7 or 8-years old, and the decline in parental control over children's viewing as TV sets become an ‘essential' part of any child's bedroom all contribute to the notion that this is ‘normal' and acceptable behaviour. Have these ‘critics' even considered their own behaviour as role models? ‘Marriage for life' is fast becoming an outmoded concept, as divorce rates rise and couples break up and re-form elsewhere with increasing frequency.

My recent experiences in the Job Centre have also bought into sharp focus the ‘lot' of the young, many leaving school with few qualifications and little useful preparation for the job market. For these young people, the future can look so bleak that the only way they can legitimately get onto the housing ladder is to have babies. I was shocked to overhear a conversation once between two teenage girls. One was cooing over the baby of the other in a pushchair. The childless one announced, “I'm going to have a baby next year. I just haven't decided who the father is.”

The reasons for underage sex and sexual activity amongst the young are manifold. They need to be addressed by the trained professionals working in that field and there are many of them, such as the dedicated band of Sandwell school nurses who were honoured last week for their contribution to the borough's falling teenage pregnancy rates through the operation of the Appause (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education) Programme, beating the national average decline in pregnancy under the age of 18. The development and absorption of such programmes should be positively encouraged and applauded, but should not be relied upon solely.

If a simple injection at aged 11 -just as the rubella vaccine is administered to ward off German Measles during pregnancy - can prevent death, worry, discomfort and distress and help eradicate cervical cancer once and for all from our map of diseases, it should be backed by legislation immediately, as our forward-thinking cousins in Michigan have done regardless of the ‘critics.' With this one, I'm with The Lancet.

For more information on cervical cancer, why not visit the following websites: (Cancer Research)

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