Drug companies have no room for the squeamish or the prudish. Take Gardasil. Merck’s blockbuster vaccine against several strains of HPV, a virus that causes cervical cancer, got a big boost from a study this week showing it may be useful in preventing head and neck cancers.
So, what’s the fuss? Well, the virus is sexually transmitted and, for maximum effectiveness, the vaccine should be administered to teenagers. The link between HPV and head and neck cancer isn’t new —studies in the early 1990s first made the hypothesis. But the theory now looks stronger after a study by researchers at the University of Texas. About 4% of all cancers in the US are in the head and neck.
Since at least half of these cancers are caused by HPV, which is spread by oral sex, there is probably a clear case for administrating the vaccine beyond its application to cervical cancer among women. Giving the vaccine to men might not just prevent cases of oral cancer, but also prevent them from spreading the virus to females. This is significant, because HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer—which kills more than 4,000 women in the US every year. The vaccine could prevent a large number of these.
Treating both sexes could also tone down the political heat surrounding the vaccine. Gardasil only works if it’s given before exposure to the virus, which means it must be given to people before they become sexually active.
The idea of vaccinating 12-year old girls against a sexually transmitted disease has not been popular among some religious factions, especially those promoting abstinence. They might be more amenable to inoculating boys under the argument, albeit sexist, that boys will be boys.
In any case, Merck investors should be delighted with the latest findings. Gardasil is on track for $1 billion (Rs4,100 crore) in sales in 2007. Analysts have predicted the drug’s sales could reach $3 billion a year, but these figures only included half the population. If the common sense of vaccinating children before they are sexually active trumps the puritanical arguments against doing so, these estimates now appear far too conservative.