updated 3/28/2007 12:49:06 PM ET 2007-03-28T16:49:06

A vaccine against the sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer went on sale Wednesday in Italy, the first European Union nation to offer the vaccine free for 12-year-old girls, the Italian Health Ministry said.

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The ministry said a campaign will be launched soon to encourage the free vaccination of 12-year-olds but that the vaccine for the human papillomavirus, of HPV, will not be mandatory. Older girls and women who want the vaccination will have to pay for it.

Proponents of the vaccine say it will be most effective when given before girls become sexually active. Ministry officials said the vaccine is being supplied by Sanofi-Pasteur, the vaccine division of Sanofi-Aventis.

Efforts to make the vaccine mandatory have triggered controversy in parts of the United States. Last month, in Texas, the governor ordered that schoolgirls going into sixth grade in 2008 be vaccinated against HPV. Conservatives contended that requiring the vaccine would encourage premarital teenage sex and erode parental rights.

HPV infection can lead to cervical cancer in women. It rarely causes cancer in men.

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