HPV vax awareness uneven despite Merck ad blitz

In 2007, Merck ($MRK) spent $100 million promoting its human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil. The advertising blitz helped sales top $1 billion, but earnings fell away quickly over the next few years. Many people are critical of the vaccine, but lots more simply do not know it exists.

Data presented at cancer conference ASCO this week shows that--despite marketing pushes by Merck and fellow vaccine maker GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK)--awareness of the shots is uneven. A white, college-educated woman with private medical insurance is likely to know of HPV vaccines. Each of these characteristics correlates with above-average awareness of the shots. In contrast, a Hispanic male on Medicare with a less than high school education is unlikely to know about the vaccines.

Researchers from Yale Cancer Center took data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, The Guardian reports. The U.S. survey asked 'have you ever heard of HPV vaccines?' Insurance coverage, race and education were all significantly associated with the level of awareness. This will limit uptake of Gardasil and Cervarix. "Our hypothesis is that if you haven't even heard of the HPV vaccine--let alone of the cancer risks behind the virus--you're certainly less likely to avail yourself of this preventative measure," Yale's Dr. Anees Chagpar said.

The challenge now is to increase awareness of the vaccine among racial minorities, people who lack insurance and those with lower education status. Clearly, Merck and GSK's marketing failed to reach many people. Just 28% of people with a less than high school education know about the HPV vaccines.

While Merck and GSK have struggled to get HPV into the mainstream, a comment by film star Michael Douglas put the virus in headlines around the world this week. Talking to The Guardian, Douglas attributed the throat cancer he was diagnosed with in 2010 to HPV. The revelation led to articles on every angle of the HPV issue--a Google search for '"Michael Douglas HPV" yields 123 million results--and reignited the vaccine debate.

- here are the ASCO stats
- check out the Douglas interview