By Maureen Lafrenière
Last year’s federal budget commitment of $300 million to vaccinate girls and women against human papillomavirus (HPV) received a mixed reaction from consumers, health professionals and the media.
Although preceded by Health Canada approval in 2006 and a positive recommendation from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, the March 2007 budget announcement took many by surprise, since the Canadian Immunization Committee, vested with the responsibility to determine that vaccines are effective and cost-efficient, had neither completed its study of potential benefits nor issued recommendations on public funding for the vaccine.(1)
Acclaim for Gardasil®, a ground-breaking product with potential to prevent some cancers and the only HPV vaccine approved for use in Canada, has been mitigated by questions about long-term safety, efficacy, cost and need. Fuelling uncertainties are reports of a comprehensive advertising and lobbying campaign by manufacturer Merck & Co., Inc.(2) – characterized by many as aggressive – with the goal of mandatory school-based vaccination programs.
How did Gardasil, a vaccination program costing $404 for a three-dose treatment, succeed in attracting so much attention and so many public health dollars so rapidly? According to the Globe & Mail, “… aside from polio [vaccine in the 50s], no vaccine has gone from regulatory approval to mass use in government-funded programs with such dizzying speed.”(3) (Varivax®, the chicken pox vaccine, also from Merck, cost $75 per shot, and received public funding six years after Health Canada approval.(4)
With the help of PR giant Edelman, Merck’s awareness and advertising campaign in the U.S. started well before the vaccine’s 2006 approval by the Food & Drug Administration.
Using celebrities and not-for-profit organizations, the 2005 “Make the Connection” campaign, focusing on the HPV virus/cervical cancer link, used the internet, television, print and orchestrated public events to reach an estimated 563 million people.(5) This was followed by “Make the Commitment” which challenged women to sign an online pledge to “talk with my healthcare professional […] about ways that I can prevent cervical cancer, including getting regular cervical cancer screenings.”