Schoolgirls across the country will be vaccinated against a cancer-causing virus from next year.
The government confirmed today 12 to 13-year-old schoolgirls will be vaccinated against two strains of human papilloma virus (HPV), which cause the majority of cervical cancers, from next autumn.
A catch-up immunisation programme will target all women up to the age of 18 from 2009.
The Department of Health (DoH) estimates the programme could save 400 lives a year. Presently some 800 women die every year from cervical cancer in England, with 2,200 cases diagnosed.
Critics attempted to provoke controversy around the programme by claiming that vaccinating women against the sexually transmitted HPV would promote promiscuity.
They also raised concerns over the age of the girls selected for the programme, despite the vaccine being most effective when administered before the recipient becomes sexually active.
Vaccinating every 12-year-old girl will cost £100 million a year, with the catch-up programme costing a further £200 million a year over two years.
The DoH is optimistic it can negotiate a discount during the procurement process, but maintains the programme will be cost effective overall.
Announcing the mass vaccinations, health secretary Alan Johnson said the programme was part of a change of emphasis in the NHS from a sickness service to a wellbeing service.
It is the first of a series of initiatives designed to prevent ill health and keep people well.
Mr Johnson said: "As a society we need to do more to prevent disease and not just treat it. Now more than ever before we need to make the NHS a service that prevents ill health and prioritises keeping people well.
"Prevention is always better than cure and this vaccine will prevent many women from catching the human papilloma virus in the first place, potentially saving around 400 hundred lives a year."
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, welcomed the announcement as an "exciting step" towards preventing cervical cancer.
He added: "While the vaccine has the potential to prevent many cases of the disease, the impact of a vaccination programme won't be felt for many years. Cervical screening remains vital in preventing the disease. We urge all women take up the invitation when they receive it.
Cervical cancer charity Jo's Trust last week criticised delays in approving the vaccination programme as tantamount to government neglect.