updated 4/7/2005 2:54:56 PM ET 2005-04-07T18:54:56

An improved version of an experimental vaccine against cervical cancer and genital warts appears to prevent both conditions, at least in the short term, according to an international study.

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Gardasil, being developed by Merck & Co., is intended to prevent infection with four types of human papilloma virus, which is sexually transmitted. Two types, HPV 16 and 18, cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer cases, while HPV 6 and 11 cause about 90 percent of genital warts cases.

In a study published online Wednesday in The Lancet Oncology, a British medical journal, researchers at Merck and elsewhere reported that over 2½ years of follow-up, the vaccine blocked about 90 percent of infections with the four HPV types. None of the vaccine recipients developed cervical cancer, precancerous lesions or genital warts related to those HPV types.

“It’s the first time we show efficacy for the most broad-coverage vaccine in development,” Dr. Eliav Barr, head of Merck’s HPV vaccine development program, told The Associated Press.

Because most HPV infections go away on their own, vaccine makers are focusing on the diseases caused by persistent or long-term infection, Barr said.

Last fall, New Jersey-based Merck published results showing its earlier vaccine candidate, which targeted only HPV 16 — the cause of about 50 percent of cervical cancers — prevented infection with that virus in 94 percent of women who were tracked for four years after they received the vaccine.

About the same time, rival pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline published a study indicating its vaccine against HPV 16 and 18 prevented persistent HPV infection in hundreds of women ages 15 to 25.

The new Merck study included 552 women, ages 16 to 23, in the United States, Europe and Brazil. Half received the vaccine, and all were examined for HPV infection and development of lesions or genital warts over 2½ years.

Among the women getting dummy shots, 36 developed an HPV infection or one of the diseases it causes. Four women who got the vaccine became infected with HPV but did not contract cervical cancer or genital warts.

Results from the final stage of human testing, involving more than 25,000 women internationally, are expected in the second half of this year.

Cervical cancer strikes nearly half a million women worldwide each year and kills about half of them. In the United States, about 15,000 women get it and about 5,000 die annually.

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