There's room for more parents, docs on Merck's Gardasil bandwagon

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

Gardasil, the darling of Merck's ($MRK) vaccines unit, has proved a valuable moneymaker, hauling in $2.17 billion worldwide last year to rank second on the world's best-selling vaccines list. But lagging U.S. vaccination rates against human papillomavirus (HPV), for which the jab is intended, are preventing the shot from achieving its bigger sales potential.

You can bet the company's marketing gurus paid attention to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month when the agency announced that vaccination rates among adolescent girls and boys against HPV remain well below target levels--57% of adolescent girls and 35% of adolescent boys received one or more doses of HPV vaccine in 2013. That trails behind the 86% of children in the same age group that received the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine.

So what's the pharma giant doing about it?

In an interview, a Merck spokesperson said the company is trying to get cozier with healthcare professionals, consumers and the broader public health community to raise awareness about how vaccination can guard against certain cancers and other HPV-related diseases.

"Our efforts include medical education for healthcare providers, print advertising, in-office media, and patient education materials, with additional programs to help ensure individuals receive all three recommended doses of Gardasil," a Merck representative said.

The CDC numbers do have a bright spot, though. From 2012 to 2013, there was a slight uptick in HPV vaccination rates among girls and boys aged 13 to 17. And while still lower than vaccination rates in girls, rates of boys getting two and three doses of the HPV jab nearly doubled from the year before.

Concern over Gardasil's safety is one barrier to higher vaccination rates. But a JAMA study published in July contributed to previous evidence showing Gardasil's safety. The study found no increased risk of deadly blood clots--known as venous thromboembolism, or VTE--in the period after vaccination.

A McKinsey & Co. analysis earlier this year shed light on the secrets of successful drug launches, labeling Gardasil as a "category creator," meaning that Merck needed to do a lot of upfront work to convince doctors and parents that its vaccine served some kind of unmet need. About 15% of drug launches are so-called category creators, which are typically drugs that break out into uncharted market territory.

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