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Ethical Debates Bog Down Merck's Vaccine

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas recently ordered that all girls entering the sixth grade in that state be vaccinated against cervical cancer. The mandate has become a source of controversy from more than one angle. Does a governor have the right to make such an order? Is the vaccine safe? Could it promote sexual promiscuity? What role does Merck – the company that developed and produces the vaccine – play in all this? Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council and Dr. Janet Phoenix of the National Research Center For Women And Families debated the issue on “Power Lunch.”

A little background: The FDA approved Gardasil, Merck’s cervical cancer vaccine, last June. Since its approval, Merck’s stock has risen 30%. Analysts say the pharmaceutical company will make between $1 billion and $4 billion over the next five years if other states follow Texas’ lead. There are currently 18 other states considering the same measure.

Some have taken issue with Merck’s lobbying of the drug, saying Gov. Perry’s office is cozying up with the drugmaker, especially considering Perry’s former chief of staff had a role in the lobbying campaign (Merck spent up to $250,000 lobbying in Texas this year, according to The Associated Press. It has also lobbied to give the vaccine for free to low-income children. The vaccine costs $360 for three shots).

Sprigg says he’s baffled by the mere idea that a governor has the authority to push through such an executive order and says it seems like it’s the “verge of dictatorship” for a governor to be making law this way. While he says his organization supports the vaccine, which has been considered a significant breakthrough in cancer treatment, they also support parents’ rights to oversee their own children’s health care. Texas does allow parents to opt out of immunizations if they oppose them for religious or philosophical reasons by filing out an affidavit. Perry’s mandate would not override that.

But Phoenix sees Perry's executive order as crucial in preventing the disease, as it is administered to girls who, according to current statistics, will more than likely get the HPV infection at some point in their lives.

HPV is the sexually transmitted disease that can carry cancer-causing strains that affect women. Nearly 4,000 women die from cervical cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty million women are currently infected.

Although the drug is new, clinical trials show that it is safe, says Phoenix. While Sprigg worries that the 11- and 12-year-old girls that will get the vaccine are being used as guinea pigs, Phoenix says all indications are that the vaccine has no major side effects that could be problematic for children and teenagers. The point of vaccinating girls when they are that age, Phoenix says, is to protect them before they become sexually active. But there are at least several conservative family-oriented organizations that have said the vaccine will give a false sense of security and promote unsafe sex and promiscuity to young girls.

Today, State Sen. Jane Nelson of Texas, a supporter of Gov. Perry, has told the governor to rescind his mandate until there has been more discussion and debate within the state legislature.

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  • Sue Herera is a founding member of CNBC, helping to launch the network in 1989. She is co-anchor of "Power Lunch."

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