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Merck Drug Gets Mixed Review from Medical Journal

Two prominent articles in a major medical journal examine the cost benefits and safety of an expensive, controversial vaccine for a sexually-transmitted disease and cancer—and send mixed signals about whether widespread use of the drug is a good idea.

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Merck's Gardasil is priced at around $400 for three shots over six months. They're aimed at preventing the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Last year, the drugmaker sold $1.5 billion worth of the vaccine. It's approved for use in 9- to 26-year-old females.

In one study in the latest issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers predict that the vaccine is expected to be cost-effective if the broad population of young adolescent girls gets it and if it provides protection for many years to come.

But an editorial in NEJM raises concerns about widespread use of the shots. Dr. Charlotte Haug, the editor of the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Asociation, writes that evidence of the vaccine's true benefits and risks won't be known for a long time, possibly decades.

Therefore, she concludes, "With so many essential questions still unanswered, there is good reason to be cautious about introducing large-scale vaccination programs."

Sales growth for Merck's Gardasil has slowed recently. The Food and Drug Administration has delayed making a decision on whether to approve the vaccine for older females. Merck may soon seek an FDA OK of Gardasil for boys and young men.

GlaxoSmithKline hopes to soon bring a competing vaccine, Cervarix, to the American market.