Aggressive marketing of Gardasil plays on public fear of cancer

smu logo1 272x300 Aggressive marketing of Gardasil plays on public fear of cancerA recent lecture presented by Southern Methodist University’s Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, in collaboration with SMU’s Department of Anthropology, examined the ethical questions of pharmaceutical company Merck’s marketing of its Gardasil vaccine. The drug, fast-tracked for approval in 2006 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was aggressively marketed as a preventive for cervical cancer.

Gardasil was recommended for girls beginning as young as age 9, and presented as an “anti-cancer vaccine.” The drug actually protects against four of hundreds of strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), two of which are high risk, responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers, and two lower-risk types of HPV. However, what the advertising campaign failed to point out is that not every woman is at the same risk for cervical cancer, and that routine gynecological examinations and Pap smears are equally if not more important in the early detection and prevention of cervical cancer.

According the the SMU Daily Campus news website, the lecture explored the idea that the advertising campaign used to promote the new vaccine was designed to play on the public’s fear of cancer. The lecture was presented by Sheila M. Rothman, Ph.D., a professor of public health in the division of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health, as well as Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

During the lecture, Dr. Rothman pointed out that as a result of a general marketing campaign aimed at both young women and the parents of young girls, large portions of the population were vaccinated without regard to or knowledge of their actual risk factor for cervical cancer. Those at high risk, she says, are those who do not have access to adequate health care, and are therefore unable to get annual Pap smears.

Others at higher risk for cervical cancer include women who smoke, who have a diet low in fruits and vegetables, take birth control pills for more than five years, have had more than three full-term pregnancies or have HIV or a Chlamydia infection, according Dr. Richard Gajdowski, medical director for United Healthcare of Michigan.

In its advertising, Merck also failed to point out rates of cervical cancer versus other types of cancer, or to mention that yearly Pap tests also would reduce risk, Dr. Rothman said. The American Cancer Society recommends women begin receiving regular Pap smears at least three years after the onset of vaginal intercourse and no later than age 21.

It is the goal of the Maguire Center to promote student awareness of pertinent ethical issues, and to promote ethics not just as an awareness of what is “right and wrong” but as a social responsibility,” according to center director Rita Kirk, Ph.D.

Source: SMU Daily Campus