Governor Rick Perry’s decision to sidestep the legislature and issue an executive order mandating that girls entering the 6th grade receive the new HPV vaccine raises troubling questions about the influence pharmaceutical companies wield on the crafting of public health policy. Cervical cancer is only expected to cause 3670 deaths in the US in 2007, a miniscule percentage (less than 2%) of the 270,000 deaths from the disease worldwide and only 1% of the total annual number of deaths from all cancers in the .
While cervical cancer used to be one of the deadliest diseases for women in the US, the number of deaths it causes has dropped dramatically (by 74% from 1955-1992) and it continues to drop). Why then are so many states considering mandating a vaccine that costs $300-$500 per patient for a type of cancer that is already largely under control in this country and which can be almost entirely prevented by regular gynecological checkups and Pap smears?
Merck & Co., the giant pharmaceutical company that makes the vaccine Gardasil, is spending millions of dollars lobbying state legislators. In , where Merck recently doubled its lobbying efforts, Gov. Perry received $6000 from Merck’s political action committee during his last campaign. One of Merck’s key lobbyists in is Perry’s former chief-of-staff and the mother-in-law of his current chief-of-staff is the state director of Women in Government, a national advocacy group of female state legislators that has received substantial funds from Merck.
It is important to note that low income women and women who do not have health insurance are most at risk because they are less likely to get regular Pap smears. More than half of the diagnosed cases of cervical cancer are in women who have not had a Pap smear in three years. While Gov. Perry has mandated that the state of foot the bill for those who can’t afford the expensive HPV vaccine, it is unclear where those funds would come from either in or in other states that are considering making the vaccine mandatory. And obviously the cost of the vaccine makes it prohibitive in the countries where it is most needed and would potentially do the most good.
What is clear is that Merck has a substantial financial interest in the vaccine becoming mandatory even though the added benefit to public health is both minimal and costly. With more than 10 million girls in the US between the ages of 10-14, the drug company stands to make billions of dollars preventing a disease that is already treatable in the targeted population. Since the vaccine does not eliminate the need for regular Pap smears, it would appear that a far more appropriate and cost effective first step would be to make regular gynecological healthcare available for all women regardless of income and medical insurance, particularly since this step by itself would go a long way in reducing the few cases of cervical cancer that still occur in this country.
There is however another significant public health concern in regards to the HPV vaccine, namely that it is a very new drug with no history. We are of course being told that it is perfectly safe and has few side effects, but we were also told that about Thalidomide, DES and Hormone Replacement Therapy. Negative health concerns have also been raised about other children’s vaccines and the Anthrax vaccine given to those in the armed forces as well as drugs like Vioxx, another Merck drug.
While Merck says that Gardasil is 100% effective in preventing the two types of the HPV virus that cause 70% of all cervical cancer, questions have arisen about these results. In an article in Healthfacts, Maryann Napoli, associate director of the Center for Medical Consumersreports that according to Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center and a former member of the FDA Vaccines and Related Biologic Products Advisory Committee, the placebos in Merck’s studies contained aluminum (which is reported to cause inflammation and cell death in animals and humans) rather than saline solution, which according to Fisher “violates the principle of scientific method . . . making it hard to tell whether the many adverse events reported were due to the use of aluminum in both the placebo and the drug or to the Gardasil itself.
And in an essay published in the Times in July 2006, Roni Rabin points out that most of the subjects in the Merck trials were women over the age of 16. Rabin found that the vaccine was only tested on 1,200 girls under the age of 16. In addition, the vaccine is so new that it is not yet known for how long it will be effective or whether a booster will be required. It is also important to note that Merck’s own literature states that Gardasil, “has not been evaluated for the potential to cause carcinogenicity or genotoxicity.”
It is not that guarding against HPV is not a good idea, in theory of course it is a great idea, but a healthy dose of skepticism is appropriate when it comes to believing the promises or stated motives of pharmaceutical companies. It seems unconscionable to mandate the use of a vaccine that has the potential to put the lives and health of an entire generation of girls at risk for the sake of preventing a cancer that is a risk to so few young women in this country and which can already be prevented by other less risky means.
Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad including, Counterpunch,Alternet, Dissident Voice, Off Our Backs, The Progressive, Countercurrents, Z Magazine , Common Dreams, In These Times and Information Clearinghouse. She blogs at WIMN Online and Sheroes.
“A New Vaccine for Girls, but Should It Be Compulsory” by Roni Rabin, Times, July 18, 2006.
“Achieving Universal Vaccination Against Cervical Cancer in the : The Need and the Means”, Guttmacher Policy Review, Fall, 2006, Volume 9, Number 4.
Woman to Woman gives Gardasil guarded reviews.” www.womentowomen.com.
“Merck lobbies states over cancer vaccine” by Liz Austin Peterson, Post-Intelligencer, January 20, 2007.
“New cervical cancer vaccine should not be mandatory” by Maryann Napoli, Healthfacts, November, 2006.
Other Articles by Lucinda Marshall