Canadian paper backpedals from Gardasil side effects story

Merck's Gardasil HPV vaccine--FierceBiotech file photo
Merck's Gardasil

Merck ($MRK) has already had its fair share of struggles with uptake rates for its HPV vaccine, Gardasil. A Toronto Star story from earlier this month, which focused on young women who'd suffered serious problems following vaccination, didn't help matters. The paper has since backed away from its story, but some damage may already be done.

The Star article was an example of how mainstream media can misreport health-related stories by favoring personal stories over scientific data. As the criticism rolled in, the Canadian newspaper backpedaled, and has since admitted that the story "led to confusion between anecdotes and evidence" as it set out to detail the vaccine's "dark side." The Star also pulled the story off its website.

The original article focused on several young women who had experienced serious maladies after receiving the HPV-blocking vaccine. While the article added a caveat that the incidents hadn't been conclusively linked to the shot, "the weight of the photographs, video, headlines and anecdotes led many readers to conclude the Star believed its investigation had uncovered a direct connection between a large variety of ailments and the vaccine," the publisher wrote Friday.

Though the newspaper has pulled the story, that doesn't mean the article hasn't already scared off would-be vaccine recipients. And Merck was already facing unfounded parental concerns that sex-related stigma or increased promiscuity would accompany Gardasil vaccination--piled onto the more general antivaccine sentiment in the U.S. The Star's short-lived front-page story was something Merck definitely didn't want.

Vaccination rates for Gardasil are already well below where they should be--and where they are for other vaccines, the CDC said last summer. In 2013, 57% of adolescent girls and 35% of adolescent boys received one or more doses of HPV vaccine, a far cry from the 86% of children in the same age group that received the tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine.

And while Gardasil currently holds the No. 2 spot on the list of the world's best-selling vaccines, sales have shown it. The jab netted $2.17 billion in 2013 sales, but analyst predictions for the shot once reached as high as $10 billion.

The New Jersey pharma giant is hoping it can overcome some of those uptake barriers with a new-and-improved version of the shot, Gardasil 9, which protects against the same four HPV types as its predecessor along with an additional 5. Analysts estimate the new vaccine could rake in $1.9 billion a year at its peak, though much of its market share will come at the original shot's expense: Leerink Partners analysts have predicted the old Gardasil will sink to just $525 million in 2018 sales.

- read the Star's publisher note

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