About-Face: Media Outlets Turn on 'Cancer Vaccine' Maker
Another pharmaceutical company is being targeted by the media â except this time itâs over the drug Gardasil, embraced by journalists just two years ago.
ABC, CBS, The New York Times have each attacked the pharmaceutical company Merck for its âOne Lessâ marketing campaign without acknowledging the mediaâs role in promoting the drug Gardasil.
Those attacks stemmed from an August 21 New
Dr. Timothy Johnson, ABCâs medical editor, blamed Merckâs campaign for misleading the public about the vaccine to prevent certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) a sexually transmitted virus. The ads feature teen girls saying, âI want to be one less.â One less woman to battle cervical cancer.
âI think the company did a very effective job of glossing over these questions [about safety and effectiveness] in its marketing campaign and convincing the public that this vaccine would indeed prevent cervical cancer. As Sharyn right points out, that simply hasnât not been proven long-term,â Johnson said on August 20.
Reports on ABCâs âGood Morning America,â CBS âEvening Newsâ and in the pages of The New York Times also criticized Merck about the drug.
But for almost two years prior, the media spread the idea that Gardasil was a cancer vaccine. All three of the critical stories ignored the way reporters, anchors and medical editors promoted Gardasil since 2006 â heralding it as a major medical âbreakthroughâ and even pushing mandatory vaccination.
ABCâs Charles Gibson told viewers âthis breakthrough couldnât come soon enough,â on the June 8, 2006 âWorld News Tonight.â But Gibson didnât credit Merck Pharmaceuticals for its creation of the drug. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development has estimated that the cost of developing one new drug is $802 million before FDA approval and another $95 million afterward. Brian Williams called Gardasil a âtriumph in science and medicine,â on June 8, 2006.
But the adulation didnât end there. NBCâs âTodayâ show co-host Meredith Vieira declared that it âcould save your teenagerâs life some day,â on Sept. 15, 2006. She also told viewers Gardasil was one of the three vaccines kids âneed.â
CBS also lauded the drug on The Early Show. Dr. Emily Senay said Jan. 1, 2007 that the âtop medical breakthrough [of 2006] has to be the cancer vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil.â
In print, The New York Times glowingly profiled Gardasil and its rival Cervarix in August 2006 and The Washington Post said in a Nov. 7, 2006, story that âexperts are recommending that girls start getting the vaccine routinely at age 11 or 12.â
In 2006, Gardasil was one of the few drugs to earn extremely positive coverage from the news media. When talking about the HPV vaccine and the Plan B birth control pill, the networks set aside the usual scrutiny of drug companiesâ profit motives and wholeheartedly endorsed the medicines, according to a Business & Media Institute (BMI) report Prescription for Bias.
That BMI study also found that 80 percent of stories on the network evening newscasts entirely left out the perspective of the pharmaceutical industry.
Media Marketed Gardasil â Not Just Merck
According to the New York Times anti-Merck story on August 20, âthe lightning-fast transition from newly minted vaccine to must-have injection in the United States and Europe represents a triumph of what the manufacturers call education and their critics call marketing.â
That Times story quoted doctors who called Merck âaggressive,â in its promotion of Gardasil and another who said, âThere was incredible pressure from industry and politics.â
But Merckâs ads werenât alone in promoting Gardasil to the public. The news media framed its reporting around cervical cancer. Network doctors told parents not to be âtalked outâ of getting their children vaccinated and some reports even urged mandatory vaccinations.
Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBCâs chief medical editor, downplayed criticism of the expense of Gardasil, calling it an âinvestment.â She also argued that it wasnât a âcontroversialâ drug in that Sept. 15, 2006 appearance, even though conservative groups argued the drug could promote promiscuous behavior among young girls and mandating the drug would take away the rights of parents.
âLetâs be real,â Snyderman said. âItâs not controversial, except we donât want our 11-year-old kids to have sex. But at some point, our kids are going to be sexually active.â As for the cost of roughly $360, Snyderman said âif you can invest that in your childâs life over the next 20 or 30 years, thatâs the best investment you can make.â
Dr. Timothy Johnsonâs complaint on ABC that Merck âglossed overâ questions about safety and misled the public by calling Gardasil a cervical cancer vaccine overlooked the fact that for almost two years the media, including his own network, did the same thing. ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post have all used the phrase âcancer vaccineâ to describe Gardasil.
NBCâs Brian Williams referred to Gardasil as âthe first vaccine to prevent cancer,â on Dec. 28, 2006, and urged parents to get their children vaccinated in many âTodayâ appearances.
Reporters knew that Gardasil was a drug for HPV â not for cancer. The Washington Post clearly explained on July 18, 2006 that Gardasil âprotects against four HPV types â 16, 18, 6 and 11. Types 16 and 18 together account for about 70 percent of all cervical cancers.â The USA Today had also explained that the drug âtargetsâ HPV in May 2006, before the drug earned FDA approval.
Broadcast reports including âTodayâ on Sept. 15, 2006 talked about the drugâs actual purpose â preventing certain strains of HPV which cause about 70 percent of cervical cancer â but labeled it a vaccine against cancer in the same story.
In spite of the questions the media have now raised about side effects, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that Gardasil is still a âsafe and effectiveâ drug âthat will potentially benefit the health of millions of women by providing protection against the types of HPV that cause the majority of cervical cancer.â
ABCâs âWorld News with Charles Gibsonâ on Aug. 20, 2008, mentioned potential side effects of HPV vaccination. Onscreen viewers were shown a frightening list: 9,000 âbad health events,â 78 genital wart outbreaks, 18 deaths, 6 Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases (which Sharyn Alfonsi said can result in paralysis). Alfonsiâs report didnât put those numbers into perspective by stating that roughly 8 million girls have gotten the vaccine.
Alfonsi did include a response from Dr. Richard Haupt, executive director Merck Research Laboratories. He said, âThese reports of conditions that have occurred following vaccination, they do not, uh, necessarily mean they are causally related.â
It is important to note that the New England Journal of Medicine did not condemn HPV drugs, but urged caution âabout introducing large-scale vaccination programs.â According to that editorial by Dr. Charlotte J. Haug, âthe overall effect of the vaccines on cervical cancer remains unknown.â
Requiring Your Kid to Be âOne Lessâ
In 2006 and 2007, journalists didnât stop after framing the Gardasil debate around cancer. NBC even supported mandatory vaccinations â despite controversy surrounding the drug.
NBC âNightly Newsâ presented reactions on Feb. 3, 2007, to Gov. Rick Perryâs, R-Texas, executive order that required girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated with Gardasil. That report quoted three people in favor of the mandate, and only two opposed. A story the same day on âTodayâ was 2-to-1 in favor of Perryâs controversial mandate.
According to a Feb. 3, 2007, story from Associated Press, âBy employing an executive order, Perry sidestepped opposition in the Legislature from conservatives and parentsâ rights groups who fear such a requirement would condone premarital sex and interfere with the way Texans raise their children.â
But on the networks, NBCâs Nancy Snyderman was an outspoken advocate for the drug mandate. Just days after Perryâs order (which was later overturned), Snyderman touted Gardasil, saying âitâs not perfect, but itâs well on its way.â
âTodayâ co-host Meredith Vieira asked Snyderman on Feb. 5, 2007, if the HPV vaccine should be mandated. Snyderman responded by saying that parents âabsolutely deserve the right to opt out,â instead of suggesting that the drug be opt-in.
Snyderman also criticized the argument for Gardasil as an âopt-inâ drug on Feb. 13, 2007, by comparing it to permissions slips for school field trips.
â[I]tâs so hard to even write a permission slip for school trip. If you ask moms to sign up â or dads to sign up for this, the chance is, we wonât immunize as many children.â
According to a report in The New York Times Aug. 20, 2008, at least 24 states have considered mandating the vaccine for young girls Other states have also passed bills to fund more HPV and cervical cancer education and still others have required insurers to cover the cost of vaccination. So far,