There’s More To HPV Prevention Than Gardasil

Emily Alexander

The women's health community's own debate about the HPV The women's health community's own debate about the HPV vaccine has long been overshadowed by Merck's aggressive marketing and lobbying efforts. In the midst of new critiques of Gardasil, now is a good time for women's health advocates to reflect on what has happened, examine what remains unknown and recommit to providing the best in education and prevention.

"The Evidence Gap"

"Gardasil Vaccine Doubts

"Should Parents Worry about
HPV Vaccine?"

Over the past several weeks,
media coverage of the human papillomavirus (HPV)
vaccine, Gardasil, has spiked. Some articles have distorted recent reports of adverse events,
or side effects, to foment fear about safety and perpetuate the spread of
misinformation about the vaccine. Others have put forward cogent critiques of Gardasil’s
manufacturer Merck, raising questions about the utility of the vaccine in
improving women’s health.

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In the two years since
Gardasil became the first HPV vaccine to obtain FDA approval, reproductive and
sexual health advocates have faced steady challenges in determining how to
react to, and how to shape, the oftentimes divisive discourse surrounding the
vaccine. Both before and after the FDA sped up the approval of the vaccine,
consumers, providers, and advocates expressed anxieties, but the women’s health
community’s own debate about the vaccine was overshadowed, by Merck’s
aggressive marketing to consumers and by its lobbying efforts to introduce
immediate school mandates for Gardasil. In the midst of new critiques of the
vaccine and increased coverage of the alleged adverse events, now is a good
time for women’s health advocates to reflect on what has happened over the past
two years, what remains unknown about the vaccine, and to reaffirm our commitment
to providing the highest quality education and advocacy around HPV and cervical
cancer prevention.

The Common Cold of Sexually Transmitted Infections

HPV could be called the
common cold of sexually transmitted infections-it’s passed through skin-to-skin
sexual contact, it’s widespread throughout the sexually active population, and
often your body can resolve the infection on its own. With 6.2 million new
infections per year, HPV is the most common STI in the U.S. The vast
majority of infections are found in sexually active people between the ages of
15 and 24. A recent study of STI prevalence among young women ages 14 to 19
found that 18% of them had HPV, and a 2007 study found that 44.8% of women ages
20-24 had the virus. Persistent infections may require treatment for genital
warts, or in rare cases, can lead to more serious outcomes, like precancerous
changes on the cervix or cervical and other anogenital cancers. Around 40
strains of HPV affect the genitals and around 15 strains are known to be
oncogenic, or cancer-causing. Where the common cold analogy breaks down is that
people infected with HPV most frequently have no symptoms but can still
transmit the virus to their sexual partners. So while everyone is familiar with
and knows when she has a cold, many have never heard of HPV and its possible
consequences – even as they could be carrying the virus and passing it on to
their sexual partners.

A New Technology for Prevention

In June 2006, after a six-month
priority review process, the FDA announced that a new HPV vaccine, Gardasil,
had been approved for use by females ages 9-26. (Priority reviews
reduce the FDA’s processing time by four months
and are generally reserved
for "products with potential to provide significant health benefits.") Shortly
thereafter, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended universal
vaccination for girls ages 11 and 12, with vaccines offered to girls and women
between the ages of 9 and 26. Gardasil is the first HPV vaccine introduced to U.S. markets,
the first vaccine with the potential to greatly reduce the incidence of a type
of cancer, and the first vaccine approved for use by only one sex. (In
Australia, Gardasil is approved
for use by both males and females; Merck is
continuing to collect data among males and has voiced interest in applying for
approval for use among males from the FDA). It is also the most expensive
vaccine on the market.

During pre-market trials the
vaccine was shown to be 100% effective at protecting against two HPV strains,
16 and 18, that are responsible for 70% of all invasive cervical cancer cases, and
strains 6 and 11, which cause approximately 90% of all genital warts. Its
potential to address a health problem not tackled by other products and the
staggering effectiveness found during trials pumped up expectations and initial

Gardasil Marketing and Lobbying: Pharmaceutical Foul

In contrast to many other
industrialized nations, U.S.
pharmaceutical companies are allowed to advertise their products directly to
consumers. Still, before Gardasil, pharmaceutical companies had not typically
marketed vaccines directly to consumers. But from the beginning, Merck took the
lead in shaping how education and information about HPV and the vaccine was
reaching women. Even before Gardasil was approved, Merck’s "Tell Someone"
campaign taught potential female consumers that cervical cancer is caused by
HPV. After approval, Merck aggressively marketed the vaccine to these
consumers, urging them to become "One Less" in the fight against cervical

Following FDA approval and
the CDC recommendations, Merck immediately moved to lobby for school mandates –
and to pass mandates while their product was the only vaccine on the market. Vaccines
are typically available for years before being required for school entry
FDA approval of the chickenpox vaccine in 1995 it took three years before
states began to pass mandates; for Hepatitis B it took eight years. A gradual
roll-out allows for education, provider and patient acceptance, and the
opportunity to answer remaining questions from pre-market trials. In 2007,
approximately 24 states, and the District
of Columbia, introduced bills to require girls to
receive the vaccine before entry into sixth grade.

But as the subject of school mandates became more and
more controversial, partly due to the growing skepticism surrounding Merck’s
educational and lobbying efforts, many of the bills
stopped moving, were defeated, or were withdrawn during the middle of
legislative sessions
. While some in the advocacy community supported
mandates because they can determine immediate financing mechanisms to cover the
growing numbers of under and uninsured, many of us felt that the momentum
surrounding mandate legislation was building at an unprecedented pace with help
from Merck’s lobbying. At this point, the terms of the debate ceased to be our
own: the pro-mandate side was bolstered by the pharmaceutical company’s
marketing and lobbying, while those within the women’s health community who
opposed mandates were overshadowed in the media by those who argued against
mandates by blaming women’s sexuality and behavior for disease.

The Politics of Prevention:
Regulating Female Sexuality

Preventive technologies reliably
trigger opposition from religious conservatives, demonstrating their constant
desire to control and condemn sexuality, especially female sexuality. Religious
conservatives consistently claim that access to sexual and reproductive health
prevention will promote and increase promiscuity. Their relationship with HPV
has been complicated: even before the introduction of the vaccine,
conservatives used HPV as a tool to push abstinence-only messages and to argue
that condoms are not effective, because they cannot completely protect against
HPV transmission. Religious conservatives raised concerns about the vaccine
because of the provocative message it would send to young girls who, they argue,
should be receiving abstinence-only information instead.

Yet there have also been
significant hesitations from our own health advocacy community about whether,
and how quickly, we should promote the use of this technology as a tool to
prevent HPV, as well as cervical cancer.

Vaccine Anxieties

Reproductive health advocates
have enjoyed a thorny relationship with the FDA in recent years. After FDA
commissioners held up the over-the-counter approval of Plan B for purely
political reasons, advocates called on the FDA to stop withholding critical
reproductive health care tools from women. Yet some advocates felt differently
about Gardasil, another preventive tool, and voiced concerns about the
product’s safety and fast approval. Meanwhile, anti-vaccine advocates used the
controversy surrounding Gardasil’s introduction, and Merck’s questionable
behavior, to press for their own goals for vaccine reform. And some within communities of color, which carry the largest burden of cervical cancer cases and deaths, have
expressed some concern about the vaccine because of
historic oppression through medical experimentation and the targeted
promotion of provider-controlled medical technologies. For example, in a 2007 survey of California
parents with daughters who would be eligible for the HPV vaccine, African
American and Asian American parents were less likely to say that they would
choose to vaccinate.

What Remains Unknown

Studies published after
Gardasil was introduced found that the vaccine’s real-life efficacy isn’t as
impressive as its trial performance, most likely because many women may already
be infected with one of the targeted strains, or because cancer-causing HPV
strains not prevented by the vaccine are responsible for a larger proportion of
pre-cancerous conditions than previously thought.  It also remains unclear what the vaccine’s
effect will be on the body’s natural immunity response to combat HPV.

This new information confirms
that the vaccine should not be the only approach to HPV and cervical cancer
prevention. But the vaccine still offers considerable protection against HPV,
and we should advocate for its availability to those who choose to use it.
(Recall that when advocates were presented with new data showing that emergency
contraception does not have the same aggregate effectiveness that we once
thought, we did not abandon our efforts to educate women about the medication
and ensure that it is widely accessible.)

Another remaining question is
whether inoculated women will need follow-up booster shots to continue
protection. So far there are data showing that Gardasil provides protection
against targeted HPV strains for at least five years. A recent study emphasizes
the vaccine is most cost effective when given to preadolescent girls. If
vaccinated women will require a booster shot to continue protection, the cost
effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing disease will also be lessened. In
the wake of these discussions, advocates should always emphasize the importance
of policies that support education and coverage to ensure equal access to
available health care.

The media’s continued attention
on adverse event reports following vaccination has raised some concerns about
Gardasil’s safety. Over the past two years Merck has distributed 16 million
doses of the vaccine throughout the United States. The FDA and CDC work
together to track vaccine safety through the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting
System (VAERS), which is designed to collect reports to help identify possible
side effects and safety concerns linked to vaccines. VAERS has received 9,749
reports of adverse events occurring after vaccination with Gardasil. After
reviewing the adverse events reported to VAERS it was
found that 6% of the reports were considered serious
, which is around half
the average number for other vaccines. These events have not yet been causally
linked to the vaccine. For example, the reports of blood clots may be linked to
other risk factors, including the use of oral contraceptives, a risk many
advocates trust women to weigh themselves given comprehensive information.

But the media continues to
distort the facts, increasing confusion and fear. Advocates should work to
contextualize these concerns, providing accurate information to address the
anxieties of women who have already been vaccinated, and for those considering
her options. We can all agree that women deserve accurate information in order
to weigh possible risk and potential benefits and make their own decisions
about what is best for their health.

How to Move Forward

Gardasil’s introduction
presented advocates with a host of complexities to negotiate, both familiar and
new. We were familiar with investigating the federal government’s oversight of
medical technologies marketed to women as well as religious conservatives’
anxieties around sexuality that reliably target any reproductive and sexual
health prevention messages or health care. We are used to responding to the oftentimes
market-driven decisions made by pharmaceutical companies. But new questions
about vaccine technology, oversight, policy, coverage and reimbursement
mechanisms, as well as the heightened anti-vaccine debates, arose with the old.

We cannot ignore the complex
questions raised by HPV vaccines- after all, GlaxoSmithKline is currently
seeking FDA approval for a new HPV vaccine and scientists are working on other
vaccines, including an HIV vaccine. If science is investigating vaccine
technology as a way to promote sexual and reproductive preventive health, we as
advocates must tackle these questions in order to provide the best education
and advocacy. While the questions are complex, we can mobilize around our
common principles and work together to achieve our ultimate goals of improving
access to health care and increasing information to empower women.

The widespread lack of
familiarity with HPV and the media’s sensational reporting on the issue has
contributed to the anxiety and confusion surrounding the introduction of the
vaccine, and is a flag for health advocates that our work should include more
creative and aggressive HPV education for the communities we serve. When
designing HPV education for women and adolescents we should stress prevention
by using condoms and the availability of the vaccine, as well as the importance
of consistent screening with Pap testing. Regardless of whether you choose to
vaccinate yourself or your daughter, all women still need to have regular Pap
screening because the vaccine does not provide protection against all HPV
strains that have been linked to cancer.

As the disparities on all
reproductive and sexual health indicators continue to widen, cervical cancer is
no exception. Women with reduced access to preventive health care, like
consistent Pap testing, are more likely to develop cervical cancer, which,
compared with most other cancers, can largely be prevented through the
treatment of precancerous conditions. U.S.
cervical cancer incidences and mortality rates are almost twice as high among
African-American and Latina
women. Studies have also shown that Vietnamese and Korean women have higher
rates of cervical cancer in the U.S.
Now that mandate policies have largely taken a backseat, there is an
opportunity to focus broad-based education on HPV prevention, including the
availability of a vaccine, and cervical cancer screening in the communities
where anxieties have been highest.

While we may have lost the
first opportunity to shape education and messaging surrounding HPV prevention
and the vaccine, taking into account what we’ve learned so far, we can work
together to seize current opportunities and increase education and access for
women. Thankfully, the damage to public confidence and understanding of the
vaccine fueled by Merck’s lobbying and marketing efforts is starting to be
repaired. Now is the moment that advocates can reclaim the discourse and
promote comprehensive HPV and cervical cancer education, including information
about all forms of prevention, screening, and treatment.

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