An influential government advisory committee Thursday recommended the routine vaccination of 11- and 12-year-old girls against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices also said the shots can be started for girls as young as 9, at the discretion of their doctors. And it recommended a "catch-up" vaccination for women 13 to 26 who have not been previously vaccinated.

The committee's recommendations usually are accepted by federal health officials, and influence insurance coverage for vaccinations.

Gardasil, made by Merck & Co., is the first vaccine specifically approved to prevent cancer. Approved earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration, it protects against strains of the human papilloma virus, or HPV, which causes cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers and genital warts.

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Some health officials had girded themselves for arguments from religious conservatives and others that vaccinating youngsters against the sexually transmitted virus might make them more likely to have sex. But the controversy never materialized in the panel's public meetings.

Earlier this year, the Family Research Council, a conservative group that promotes family values, did not speak out against giving the HPV shot to young girls. The organization mainly opposes making it one of the vaccines required before youngsters can enroll in school, said the group's policy analyst, Moira Gaul.