Sanofi steps up meningitis marketing amid lagging Menactra sales

According to a new survey, more than two in three mothers have little to no knowledge of the CDC's recommendations for preventing meningococcal meningitis. And if you're a meningitis vaccine maker like Sanofi ($SNY), that's a troubling statistic. So the pharma giant is taking it upon itself to turn things around with a new initiative that it hopes will increase awareness--and give sales a boost in the process.

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

On Monday, Sanofi Pasteur U.S. launched a tour with 12-time Olympic medalist swimmer and mother Dara Torres, who is in her second year with the Voices of Meningitis campaign the company sponsors in collaboration with the National Association of School Nurses. In Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and New York, Torres will swim 24 laps with local teens and mothers to highlight a disease that can claim a life in as little as 24 hours.

While the national immunization rate for menginococcal meningitis is around 74%, indications from the company's internal research peg the booster rate at around 30%--"way behind where it should be," Sanofi Pasteur's public relations director Sean Clements told FierceVaccines, considering the CDC's findings that immunity begins to wane after 5 years. This time around, the company is "really trying to pump up the volume on the messaging on that second dose," which the CDC recommends at age 16 after initial vaccination at 11 or 12.

"We're lagging behind in trying to get that second dose to the adolescents who need it," 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.

And the company is hoping that Torres can help it do just that. 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.

"We wanted to make sure we had somebody who could be that peer that they can talk to and deliver that message," Clements said. "With her celebrity and what's behind her, she's able to break through the clutter by delivering that message."

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