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WASHINGTON - By the time they reach 50, more than 75 percent of American women will have contracted a virus they may not even know they have. For some, it could lead to cervical cancer and possibly death. Others may never know they are carriers.

A new vaccine that could prevent the some strains of the sexually transmitted disease known as the human papilloma virus, or HPV, is kicking up controversy. And at the center of the debate is an unlikely group – adolescents.

Since the virus is sexually transmitted, the most effective prevention is vaccinating girls before they become sexually active. And that's the controversy. Opponents say that vaccinating girls as young as 9 could encourage teenage promiscuity.

Many health groups hope the vaccine, expected to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration in early June, will be available in schools, as the inoculations are for Polio and Hepatitis B.

Some religious groups, however, are worried the vaccine will be given to adolescents without warning them that it still doesn't make sex "safe."

They are also concerned that requiring it in schools will infringe on parental rights regarding their child's sexual health.

"We are paying close attention to how it (the vaccine) will be marketed…and what kind of messages will be sent out," said Peter Sprigg, spokesman for the conservative Family Research Council.

"We feel that the administration of the vaccine could be used as an opportunity…to emphasize the fact that abstinence is the only 100 percent way to prevent all STDs and pregnancy and other negative consequences," he said.

David Bell, a clinical professor of pediatrics, population and family health, believes any controversy surrounding the vaccine is a question of perspective. It depends, he says, whether you view it as a cancer preventative or as an STD vaccine.

Bell said there is nothing to support fears that because young people have been vaccinated, they will be more active sexually.

"Technically, the kid probably will not understand the idea that it's about a sexually transmitted infection because we are appropriately saying it's a cancer prevention drug," he said, adding that all school vaccines already require signed parental consent.

The vaccine would be the first of its kind aimed at preventing a form of cancer. Drug companies are only seeking approval for adolescent girls, but the program might someday be extended to include preteen boys.

Merck & Co., developer of one of two HPV vaccines that are being created, said its Internet poll of 2,050 parents with daughters between 9 and 17 found that 71 percent were unaware of the connection between HPV and cervical cancer.

When informed about the virus, 62 percent of parents said that if the vaccine were available, they would vaccinate their daughters, the rest were unsure what they would do. The American Cancer Society estimates that more almost 10,000 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, and the disease will kill some 3,700.

The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that at least 50 percent of sexually active people will contract HPV in their lifetimes. Each year in the United States alone, about 6.2 million people will be infected. For many, it clears up on its own; for others, it could lead to genital warts or cancer.

HPV is spread though all sexual activity, not just intercourse.

Most deaths from HPV occur in poorer countries with limited access to overall health care and to Pap smears, which can detect precancerous cells.

- By Lauren Dake, Medill News Service

Watch HPV: Shockingly common, Potentially Devastating

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 Get the scoop on the most common STDs
 Find out how to protect yourself from HPV and other STDs
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