This week, the Texas House overwhelmingly approved a bill to rescind Gov. Rick Perry's order that mandated girls be given a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. Meanwhile, legislators in California delayed a bill proposing a mandate.
The hesitation surrounding the vaccine is hardly a surprise. Parents were always likely to voice concern over a drug that forces them to consider their daughters' future sexual activity. It seems fair to say, though, that the recent uproar should have never been more than a whisper.
The opportunity to dramatically reduce cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers in a whole generation of women could prove to be one of the most significant combatants against cancer ever produced. From June, when the Food and Drug Administration approved Gardasil, to January, Merck received almost entirely positive press for its new drug. It was a welcome period for the company still licking its wounds from the Vioxx debacle.
Unfortunately, it didn't last. Given the sensitivity of the subject, it would have seemed to make sense to let a debate run its course. But Merck pushed too hard. Perry, whose former chief of staff happened to be a Merck lobbyist, bypassed the legislature and ordered the mandate. A legislative group advocating it, Women in Government, happened to receive funding from the drug giant.
Suddenly, the fringe parents-rights groups had allies they'd hardly expected. On February 21, Merck announced it would stop its nationwide lobbying efforts.
Merck will still reap the benefits of mandates across the country. Gardasil has received universal acceptance within the medical community, and most agree this misstep will only affect the rate of uptake. In other words, success for Merck is inevitable. Still, one can't help but think it could have chosen a less bumpy road.