Blaming the Media for Gardasil Hype

New York Times Blog August 29, 2008

Merck’s teen girl vaccine Gardasil has been under fire of late, with everyone from The New England Journal of Medicine to The New York Times questioning whether there is sufficient evidence to justify the widespread use of vaccines against cervical cancer. “I think the company did a very effective job of glossing over these questions in its marketing campaign and convincing the public that this vaccine would indeed prevent cervical cancer,’’ said Dr. Timothy Johnson, ABC’s medical editor, last week.

Now, a pro-business media watchdog group has a new take on the issue. The hype about Gardasil isn’t the result of over-the-top marketing by Merck, it claims, but is instead the result of heavy promotion by the American news media. Merck’s ads weren’t alone in promoting Gardasil to the public. The news media framed its reporting around cervical cancer. Network doctors told parents not to be “talked out” of getting their children vaccinated, and some reports even urged mandatory vaccinations.

The report was compiled by the Business Media Institute, a unit of the conservative watchdog group Media Research Center. And notably, it was e-mailed to me by a Merck representative. Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, the report offers an interesting view of the media’s sometimes unquestioning role in raising the profile of the vaccines. The report cites several examples, including:
ABC’s Charles Gibson told viewers “this breakthrough couldn’t come soon enough,” on the June 8, 2006 “World News Tonight.”
NBC’s Brian Williams called Gardasil a “triumph in science and medicine” on June 8, 2006. He referred to Gardasil as “the first vaccine to prevent cancer” on Dec. 28, 2006, and urged parents to get their children vaccinated in many “Today” appearances.
NBC’s “Today” show co-host Meredith Vieira declared that it “could save your teenager’s life some day” on Sept. 15, 2006. She also told viewers Gardasil was one of the three vaccines kids “need.” Dr. Nancy Snyderman, NBC’s chief medical editor, downplayed criticism of the expense of Gardasil, calling the $360 cost “the best investment you can make.”
For “The Early Show” on CBS, Dr. Emily Senay said Jan. 1, 2007, that the “top medical breakthrough [of 2006] has to be the cancer vaccine for cervical cancer, Gardasil.”
The report also says The New York Times “glowingly profiled Gardasil” in an August 2006 story about the history of the vaccine.
Since then, the media tide has certainly turned against Gardasil, due in large part because there is simply more available information about its use.