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Is HPV Vaccine Benefit Exaggerated?

Experts Debate Whether Gardasil Marketing Clouds Risk/Benefit Decision
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Gardasil Oversold by Medical Groups?

Columbia University researchers Sheila Rothman, PhD, and David Rothman, PhD, suggest that at least three medical associations used funds and other assistance from Merck to create educational materials for non-specialist doctors that promoted Gardasil.

"Doctors may not know that this education is not being done by a group of experts in the field but that it is all being orchestrated by the drug company," Sheila Rothman tells WebMD.

Stewart Massad, MD, ethics chair for the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology -- one of the groups named by the Rothmans -- says that although the Rothmans are right that his group supports HPV vaccination, they are wrong to say Merck wrote their educational materials.

"HPV vaccine is a revolutionary advance that promises to change the way cervical cancer is prevented," Massad tells WebMD. "We thought our members needed to know about it. We sought funding from elsewhere, but we were not able to find nonprofit or government funding to fill the costs. We disclosed Merck's support in all the materials we distributed, and Merck had no role in writing them. They signed off on the concept but were not allowed to have any input on material that was developed."

The Society of Gynecologic Oncologists said in a statement provided to WebMD that its materials are unbiased. The third group named by the Rothmans, the American College Health Association, did not respond to WebMD's request for comment.

But the Rothmans' article suggests that these medical associations overemphasized the risk posed by HPV and overstated the scientific evidence supporting Gardasil's ability to prevent cancer.

"The fact is that most of the HPV infections are symptomless; most of it goes away by itself," Rothman says. "Only 10% of infections go on to become lesions. Yes, we have causative agent and a disease. But it is not a straight line to get there. And what the company did was create a straight line and get the organizations to go along with it and legitimize it."

Richard M. Haupt, MD, MPH, Merck's executive director of clinical research, says Rothman is wrong.

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