Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Times On Merck's Aggressive HPV Scare Tactics

We here at Go-To Girl have been critics of the HPV vaccine since 2006, and today the New York Times featured a long article about the fast-track approval of Gardasil to prevent a disease that, frankly, isn't a big deal in the United States. The Times has done really thoughtful analysis about the hyper-aggressive "educational" (read: marketing) campaign Merck has done to create a total panic about a disease that barely kills anyone and for which a cheap, effective, and universally available screening tool (the Pap smear) already exists.

Below are highlights from the article; you can read my other pieces about HPV here.
Dr. Lippman at McGill [University in Canada]. “Some of our provinces are running out of money to provide primary care. I’m not against vaccines, but in Canada and the U.S., women are not dying in the streets of cervical cancer.”
Remember the flu vaccine shortage in 2005? That happened because the flu vaccine is so unprofitable that no manufacturer could be bothered to make it. Not so with the $130-a-shot HPV vaccine.
Vaccines were traditionally the orphans of the pharmaceutical world because they were cheap and not particularly profitable. But the two for cervical cancer are the latest in a wave of high-priced vaccines that have come to market since 2001, opening a lucrative new field.
And right here in Austin...
In Texas, Merck hired Gov. Rick Perry’s former chief of staff as a lobbyist, and contributed $6,000 to the governor and $38,000 to other legislators. Last February, Mr. Perry ordered that all schoolgirls be inoculated with Gardasil, a pronouncement that was overturned by the Texas Legislature, 181 to 3, a few months after the financial conflicts were revealed.
Women receiving the vaccine will need to shell out more money for a booster? What a shock. This is what happens when a for-profit company ventures into public health territory.
Dr. Harper said that in the data from Merck’s clinical trials, which she helped conduct, the vaccine was no longer protective after just three years in some girls. “The immunity of Gardasil will not last — that is dangerous to assume,” she said.
The nitty-gritty of why this vaccine makes no sense in the United States:
Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in women, with 500,000 new cases worldwide each year. But more than 90 percent of them are in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization; 274,000 women died of this cancer in 2006, nearly 95 percent in developing countries. Where there are Pap smear programs, few women die of cervical cancer. In the United States, it is responsible for 12,000 new cases a year and 3,600 deaths, most in women who did not get Pap smears, said Laurie Markowitz, head of the HPV working group at the C.D.C. (emphasis added)
And on the possibility of a whole new boondoggle--giving the vaccine to boys:
Said Dr. Raffle, the British cervical cancer specialist: “Oh, dear. If we give it to boys, then all pretense of scientific worth and cost analysis goes out the window.”
Just for clarification, boys don't have a cervix.

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