March 22, 2011 ( - The Gardasil vaccine, introduced in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer caused by HPV (Human Papillomavirus), was backed by a massive marketing campaign by its manufacturers, the U.S. drug company, Merck Frosst. The drug was approved by federal and provincial public health agencies in Canada, who claimed it was safe for young girls, aged 9-15 years, even though there were only limited data available on the effects of the drug on pre-teen and early teenage girls.

The Gardasil campaign in Canada was also enhanced by a provision, in the Conservatives 2007 federal budget, to provide $300 million to the country’s provinces to distribute Gardasil. The provinces could not resist the money and used it to vaccinate thousands of young Canadian girls.

Public demand for this drug was created by the media, mindlessly and uncritically parroting the claims of the manufacturers in their hard driving marketing campaign.

With all this going for it, Gardasil grossed over $1.1 billion U.S. within nine months after hitting the market. By that time, Merck Frosst had distributed 13 million doses of the vaccine, which had been approved in 86 countries.

Marketplace Dud

Four years later, however, Gardasil has turned into a marketplace dud. In Merck’s second quarter in 2010, the company reported an 18% year-over-year drop in sales and its shares dropped nearly 3%. What happened to Gardasil sales, which led to this financial setback?

It turns out that Gardasil’s flat and declining sales are due to a design flaw. To be completely immunized, women and girls have to receive a series of three injections over six months. Many women and girls didn’t do so. For example, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, in their report of August 2010, although 44% of teenagers had received the HPV vaccine in 2009, only 27% of them received all three doses of the vaccine.

There is no evidence to support the possibility that only one injection effectively protects against cervical cancer.

The reasons for the failure to obtain all three injections may be due, at least, in part, to the following:

  • Many parents are not comfortable vaccinating young children against a virus they can only get if they are having sex;
  • Merck was unable to counter the bad press that arose when the side effects of the HPV vaccine Gardasil became known; and
  • Competition from another pharmaceutical company, GlaxcoSmithKline, whose product, Cervarix, hit the market in 2009.

Although Merck is still pushing the drug into other markets (the drug was approved in 2009 for male use, and Merck has signed a deal to sell Gardasil in China), it is believed a full comeback is unlikely.

It seems that the real problem is that the public is not ready for a cancer vaccine that requires multiple injections, claiming to prevent cervical cancer which is caused most commonly by sexual activity.

This article was originally published in the January/February 2010 edition of Reality magazine and is re-published with permission.