MEXICO CITY -- Mexico on Wednesday launched a massive program to vaccinate fifth-grade girls against human papillomavirus, making it one of the few nations in the world with a universal campaign against the sexually transmitted virus.
One million schoolgirls ages 11 or 12 will receive the HPV vaccination this week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said. Another 200,000 girls who aren’t in school also will be given the vaccine.
HPV is the world’s most common sexually transmitted infection and causes cervical cancer, a disease that killed an estimated 4,000 Mexican women a year, Calderon said.
“This cancer, unlike others, is preventable,” Calderon said at a ceremony at the Los Pinos presidential palace. “It is a great opportunity that human beings have to conquer one of the worst diseases . . . through a simple vaccine.”
Mexico becomes one of the few countries in the world to follow in the footsteps of Greece, which in 2007 made the HPV vaccination mandatory for girls entering seventh grade.
Proponents of mandatory HPV vaccinations in the United States have found widespread resistance, however. Only Virginia and the District of Columbia mandate the vaccination. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas issued an executive order in 2007 requiring 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated, but the state’s legislature overturned it, and Perry’s order haunted him on his failed bid to win the GOP presidential nomination last year. Efforts to compel the vaccine’s use have been defeated in some 20 other states.
U.S. medical and public health groups have been vocal this year in urging politicians to take greater action. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians all deem the vaccine safe and recommend its use for girls ages 11 and 12.
Calderon, who leaves office Dec. 1, was emphatic that the HPV vaccination is safe for girls. A national laboratory will examine all imported vaccine.
“I tell you with certainty and confidence that it is convenient, healthy and very important for every girl to receive this human papillomavirus vaccine,” he said.
The government has ordered state-owned Biologics and Reagents Laboratories of Mexico (Birmex), which already makes vaccines, to come up with its own HPV vaccine, Calderon said.
Patricia Volkow Fernandez, an infectious disease and cancer specialist at Mexico’s National Cancer Institute, said that more than 100,000 women have died of cervical cancers in the past quarter-century, making it the No. 2 most common cancer among women in Mexico.
Administering the vaccine to schoolgirls, she said, is a way to sidestep language, cultural and social barriers that make rural women unlikely to accept pelvic exams to detect cervical cancer in its early stages.
While there are more than 100 subtypes of human papillomavirus, the vaccine administered in Mexico is effective against subtypes 16 and 18, which cause 70 percent of the cervical cancers in the nation, she said.
All fifth-grade girls will be given an initial shot, then a second shot six months later, she said. A third and final dose will be given to girls in ninth grade.
Mexico began an obligatory vaccination program of schoolchildren and pregnant women in 1991, and currently offers 14 types of vaccines, Health Secretary Salomon Chertorivski said, adding that the campaign had helped eradicate polio, diphtheria and German measles, and limited tuberculosis and pneumonia.
During weeklong periods three times a year, thousands of doctors and nurses spread across the country to schools and rural clinics to administer the free vaccinations.
Calderon hailed his nation’s public health record but noted that Mexicans retain the dubious distinction as “world champions of childhood and adult obesity.”
“You have to do a half-hour of exercise every day, no matter what,” Calderon lectured students at the announcement ceremony. “You have to do it, you must be obligated to do it and we must teach our children to exercise every day.”