Tens of millions of girls and young women have been vaccinated against human pappilomavirus (HPV) in the United States and Europe in the two years since two vaccines were given government approval in many countries. One of the vaccines, Merck’s Gardasil, has been made available to the poorest girls in the country, up to age 18, at a potential cost to the United States government of more than $1 billion, and proposals to mandate the vaccine for girls in middle schools have been offered in 24 states.
The lightning-fast transition from newly minted vaccine to must-have injection represents a triumph of what the manufacturers call education -- but their critics are calling it a triumph of marketing.
Award-winning advertising has promoted the vaccines, including ads that ran before the film “Sex and the City,” on YouTube, and during popular shows like “Law and Order.” The vaccine makers have also provided money for activities by patients’ and women’s groups, doctors and medical experts, lobbyists and political organizations interested in the disease, sometimes in ways that skirt disclosure requirements or obscure the companies’ involvement.
Some experts are worrying about the consequences of the rapid rollout of the new vaccines without more medical evidence. Because of the aggressive marketing, even parents of girls who are far from being sexually active may feel pressured into giving them a vaccine that is not yet needed and whose long-term impact is still unclear.
In the United States, hundreds of doctors have been recruited and trained to give talks about Gardasil, at $4,500 for a lecture. Some have made hundreds of thousands of dollars.