Merck: Half truths about Gardasil HPV vaccine

It is fact that pharmaceutical companies tell the media only those things that are in their favour.  So it was not surprising that MSD Pharmaceutical, Merck’s Indian subsidiary, resorted to the same when it held a press conference in Chennai in 2008.

The press conference was to announce the commercial launch of Gardasil, the vaccine to prevent  cervical cancer caused by Human Papillomavirus (HPV), in India.

In the very begining the Director Vaccine of MSD said “education, screening and vaccination” are the cornerstones to prevent cervical cancer.  But she never mentioned that only 70 per cent of cervical cancers are caused by subtypes 16 and 18.

And it was never revealed during the presentation that patients should continue regular screening even after vaccination.  Regular screening for cervical cancer is required  even after vaccination as the vaccine can prevent cervical cancer caused by these two subtypes.

While they they kept telling us about the important role we played in educating the society, they did not care to tell us the truth, the whole truth.

And to add insult to injury, there was a doctor, who had come at Merck’s invitation, who told us that the vaccine has 98 per cent possibility of preventing cervical cancer! That was a great effort to mislead  journalists who were not covering health issues regularly.  And most of them actually did not know the finer details.

Very upset with the way the doctor tried to create a wrong impression about the vaccine and the company remaining silent on the issue of regular screening even after vaccination, I ensured that they did not succeed in misleading the journalists who had gathered there.

The doctor had to admit that the two subtypes account for only 70 per cent of cervical cancers, and that the vaccine can prevent only 98 per cent of this possibility.

But the company tried to defend itself by saying that it did tell about screening.  They had to finally concede that screening after vaccination was never talked about.

The company also mentioned that 50per cent of women get infected by HPV.  Did they borrow that data from some study/survey done abroad or is it India specific?  If it is India specific, how and when did they get it?  They could not provide a satisfactory answer to these questions.

The Editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine has raised many questions about the vaccine.  The fact that the trial looked for only the antibody response and not the efficacy is worrying.  So should we vaccinate young girls?  A paper in the same issue of the journal says that it will take about two decades before we know the health implications of the vaccination programme.