Merck aims to boost HPV vaccination rates amid lagging numbers

Though Merck's Gardasil tops the company's best-selling vaccines list and has already achieved blockbuster sales, the drug giant has a long way to go if it wants to increase U.S. immunization rates against human papillomavirus.

The company ($MRK) got disappointing news after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported July 25 in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that overall vaccination rates against HPV remain well below the health agency's target. Though the number of girls and boys aged 13 and 17 being immunized against HPV grew modestly in 2013 compared to 2012, parents' safety concerns and the lack of a recommendation from a clinician for the vaccine remain barriers for more widespread vaccination.

The CDC reported that 57% of adolescent girls and 35% of adolescent boys received one or more doses of HPV vaccine in 2013, far below the 86% of children in the same age group that received the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine. From 2012 to 2013, the percentage of adolescents receiving at least one dose of HPV vaccine increased nearly 4% for girls and 14% for boys.

"We continue our efforts with healthcare professionals, consumers and the broader public health community to raise awareness and increase knowledge so that vaccination rates and broader access to this important vaccine can increase," a Merck spokesperson told FierceVaccines. "Specifically, 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."

Merck hopes that push will lead to bigger gains for Gardasil, which contributed $1.8 billion in sales for the company in 2013, up more than 12% from $1.6 billion in 2012.

U.S. vaccination rates continue to be a public health concern, as evidenced by another recent CDC report from February, which found that adult vaccination rates are also below target levels. In adults aged 19 to 26, HPV vaccination rose only slightly in 2013, while racial and ethnic gaps in coverage persisted for 6 different vaccines, including HPV.

HPV causes genital warts and most cases of cervical cancer as well as many cases of vaginal, vulvar, anal, penile and oropharyngeal cancers. The CDC recommends all three shots of the HPV vaccine, which are given over 6 months to protect against infection.

- read the MMWR news

Special Reports: The top 5 vaccine makers by 2013 revenue - Merck | Top 10 best-selling vaccines of 2013