Sanofi looks to make a splash with meningitis booster-shot push

When looking for celebrity spokespeople, pharma companies want someone who can deliver a health message as a peer might. "When it comes to it, you listen to friends. You listen to people that you know," Sean Clements, public relations director for Sanofi Pasteur, told FiercePharmaMarketing.

Dara Torres--Courtesy of Sanofi Pasteur U.S.

And for Sanofi ($SNY), which is trying to spread the word about the importance of meningitis booster shots--amid lagging sales of its vaccines for the deadly disease--that person is 12-time Olympic medalist swimmer Dara Torres. As a mother of two vaccinated adolescents and a soon-to-be-vaccinated 8-year-old, she's got plenty in common with the parents Sanofi wants to reach.

"With her celebrity and what's behind her, she's able to break through the clutter by delivering that message," Clements said.

Torres is in her second year with the Voices of Meningitis campaign, which the company sponsors in collaboration with the National Association of School Nurses. As part of an initiative that launched on Monday, she will swim 24 laps with local teens and mothers in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York to highlight a disease that can claim a life in as little as 24 hours.

"Healthcare providers have so many things going on that you're not always told about the different vaccinations," Torres told FiercePharmaMarketing. "I wanted to be a voice to educate parents about how important it is to vaccinate your kids against this potentially deadly disease."

After enlisting Torres in its "Get in the Game" initiative aimed at vaccinating adolescent athletes, this time around, Sanofi is putting the focus on the meningococcal booster shot, which the CDC recommends at age 16 after initial vaccination at 11 or 12. While the national immunization rate for the disease is around 74%, indications from the company's internal research peg the booster rate at around 30%--"way behind where it should be," Clements said, considering the CDC's findings that immunity begins to wane after 5 years.

"We're really trying to pump up the volume on the messaging on that second dose," he said.

Sanofi has good reason to try to turn those stats around. Sales for its vaccines unit dropped 4.2% in 2014's first quarter to €628 million ($864 million), with its meningitis/pneumonia vaccines segment--comprising both Menactra and Menomune--plummeting by 25%. That followed a Q4 2013 top-line tally for meningitis/pneumonia that shrank 60.6% from the year-ago quarter, capping off a year in which Menactra sales dipped to €424 million in a 21.5% slide.

But Sanofi isn't alone in trying to up its meningitis marketing game. Last year Novartis ($NVS), which sells its meningitis B vaccine Bexsero in Europe, partnered with photographer Anne Geddes on the Protecting Our Tomorrows initiative, which featured portraits of children who had survived meningococcal disease.

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