Harry Cabluck/AP

Merck Targets Gardasil Advertising to Older Women

October 27, 2008 03:10 PM
by Isabel Cowles
Despite doubts surrounding HPV vaccine Gardasil’s medical and cost benefits, Merck wants to market the drug to women over the age of 26.

Merck to Expand Market for Gardasil

A recent study reported that vaccinating older women against the human papillomavirus (HPV) can be effective in significantly reducing the rate of cervical cancer, prompting pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. to seek to expand marketing of its drug to an older demographic.

Using a mathematical model, researchers at the University of Alabama concluded that vaccinating women by ages 12 through 45 could cut cervical cancer rates up to 55 percent for 45-year-old women. The mathematical model assumed a 100 percent vaccination rate against HPV, which causes most cases of cervical cancer.

Gardasil, a vaccination developed by Merck, protects against HPV strains 16 and 18, which lead to approximately 70 percent of all cervical cancer cases. The virus also protects against HPV types 6 and 11, which cause genital warts. 

The vaccination has been approved by the FDA for women ages 9 through 26 but doesn’t protect anyone who has already been infected with HPV. “The thinking has been that girls must be vaccinated before they are sexually active, because HPV is so common,” reported Reuters.

But Merck now wants to target an older market after the number of Gardasil vaccinations went down nearly 35 percent in July and August. Merck seeks to garner sales from women who have not typically used the vaccine. According to Bev Lybrand, Merck’s senior vice president of vaccines, “We see tremendous opportunity. We have a number of programs under way to get after these women.”

However, professionals across the medical field have suggested that Gardasil is not financially worthwhile for women over the age of 26. Researchers at Harvard University and the American Cancer Society suggested that the $400 vaccine isn’t cost-effective for older women, and a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, “The cost-effectiveness of HPV vaccination will depend on the duration of vaccine immunity and will be optimized by achieving high coverage in preadolescent girls.”
Despite reports of negative health effects, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that a quarter of girls in the 13–17 age range have received the Gardasil shot. According to Dr. Diane Harper, one of Gardasil’s original principal investigators, “Merck lobbied every opinion leader, women’s group, medical society, politicians, and went directly to the people—it created a sense of panic that says you have to have this vaccine now.”

Many critics are concerned that Merck pushed Gardasil onto the market too quickly and that its medical necessity remains dubious—especially in light of reports of adverse health problems related to the drug.

Related Topic: Vytorin, Zetia also under scrutiny

Merck has also been in the spotlight due to the recent controversy over Vytorin and Zetia. A study revealed that the drugs are not more effective at clearing artery plaque than their generic counterparts, although the company’s marketing claimed that they offered more protection against heart attacks than generic statin drugs.

Reference: Gardasil safety


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