Marketing Gardasil Vaccination in the Halls of Colleges & Universities | Pharmaguy's Insights Into Drug Industry News |

Wandering the halls of a college or university campus can be enlightening in seeing how the pharmaceutical marketing machine is insinuating itself into the lives of young people.


Last month, while giving a public lecture at the University of Victoria, I spotted a glossy poster entitled, “Reasons Why You Should Help Protect Yourself Against HPV.” It featured a man and two women staring provocatively into the camera. Since consumer-directed advertising of pharmaceuticals is illegal in Canada, I wondered what this drug ad was doing on a university bulletin board.


No doubt designed to entice university students of both genders to start worrying about something they’ve probably never even heard of – HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) – it included this bold stat that helpfully stokes fear: “It is estimated that 75% of sexually active Canadians will have at least one HPV infection during their lifetime.” After making the link between HPV, cervical cancer and genital warts, the poster hits the students with the sales hook – I’m paraphrasing here – “Come on down and get your Gardasil 9 vaccinations and your student health plan will save 80% of the cost!” For debt rattled students, the chance of saving $400 must surely be very enticing because, well, genital warts? Oooh, gross.


The grossest thing about this poster was the missing safety information related to the vaccine. But if you looked closely, you could see it had been covered up, as was the manufacturer’s name, Merck, with a sticker showing the potential cost savings. The headline “Gardasil is available at UVIC Health Services for Men and Women” was followed by how the three-dose regime of the Gardasil 9 vaccine would cost students $480 out of pocket but only $96 with their undergraduate Extended Health Plan. What a bargain!


If you held the poster up to the light, you could just make out the safety information. In this case, the vaccine was related to a number of minor things and the classic cover-all statement, “As with any medicine, there is a very remote chance of a vaccine causing a serious injury or death.”


In my world of researchers, the university’s attitude seems quaint and naive given that many people worldwide consider the HPV vaccines to be poster children for “controversial.” Even though it’s designed to prevent infection by some strains of the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), the vaccine has yet been proven to reduce cervical cancer rates. And the potential for harm is real and troubling.


Evidence from the company-sponsored, randomized trials used to approve the vaccine have shown it was generally safe, but ‘real world’ experience has been very different. In the US, for example, up to the end of September 2015, there were 37,474 adverse reaction reports made to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) associated with Gardasil. These reports include 209 deaths. What does one make of this? It’s unclear because these deaths are deemed ‘associations’ and one cannot conclude the vaccine alone was directly responsible.


[The author, Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher in Victoria. His most recent book, The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best Kept Secret, has just been published. Follow him on twitter @AKECassels]