Profit and Public Health

Sunday, February 11, 2007

THE DEBATE over requiring girls to receive a shot against a sexually transmitted virus that sometimes causes cervical cancer should be about what's in the best interests of these young women. It should not be about the interests of the maker of the vaccine. Regrettably, the two are being confused thanks to a lobbying effort undertaken across the country by Merck & Co. on behalf of its new product.

Merck makes Gardasil, the vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration as effective against strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) leading to most cases of cervical cancer. Merck also, according to reports by the Associated Press and Baltimore Sun, is helping to finance efforts across the nation to persuade states to make the vaccine mandatory for all girls. It has had success in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry (R) issued an executive order requiring the vaccine, and in Virginia, where bills have passed both houses of the General Assembly. Merck's involvement in Texas has become particularly controversial because Mr. Perry's former chief of staff now lobbies for the company and because the governor has ties to a national women's advocacy group that is active in the campaign and also receives funding from Merck. Mr. Perry's unilateral action cut the legislature, and by extension the public, out of any discussion of the issues and is likely to make public compliance with his policy more difficult.

Merck officials say that they are simply promoting policies that benefit public health: What's more benign than a vaccine able to prevent cancer? We don't disagree either about the efficacy of the vaccine, which the FDA says has been demonstrated in extensive tests, or the argument for its widespread use. There is, though, something unseemly about a company that stands to make billions of dollars driving a debate that already is sensitive because it involves young girls, sex and parental rights. Merck's commercial interests unnecessarily muddy the waters and give critics ammunition with which to attack worthwhile legislation. Indeed, in Maryland the sponsor of such a bill recently pulled the measure after reports surfaced about Merck's lobbying.

The best move Merck can now make is to back off. Happily, that's not necessary in the District, where the only role Merck has played has appropriately been to provide information in response to questions from D.C. Council members. Virginia is a different matter. Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) and Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), sponsors of bills that passed in the respective houses, are right to push for Virginia to take the lead in fighting cervical cancer. But Merck's help needlessly clouds the issue. While continuing to promote their initiative, the legislators might want to think about how they can bolster public confidence. Returning campaign contributions would be a good step.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company