Much of the push to mandate coverage of the HPV testing and the HPV vaccine is coming from the Women in Government’s Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer, a campaign that appears to be funded in part by the makers of the HPV test and HPV vaccine.
The Challenge, begun in 2004, has an ambitious agenda to eliminate cervical cancer in the United States, and seeks to “mobilizes state legislators to address cervical cancer prevention in their states.” According to a recent NEJM article entitled “Ethics and the HPV Vaccination“:
Women In Government, a Washington-based, bipartisan organization of female legislators, is leading a push to make HPV vaccination compulsory in every state. The group has issued recommendations for ensuring that the vaccine is accessible and affordable, including a recommendation that states add it to their Medicaid programs and encourage private health plans to cover it. The group follows in the tradition of breast-cancer activists, who have mobilized through many political channels to combat an illness that disproportionately burdens women.
Membership of the WIG, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit entity, includes female state legislators from all over the US. The group has a large list of policy issues they consider important – quite extensive and quite impressive. They appear to be taking on chronic kidney disease and higher education funding with a similar energy to their cervical cancer campaign. It’s an ambitious agenda that most certainly requires funding.
Who funds the WIG?
Like every non-profit, the WIG has lots and lots of corporate partners, and most of Big Pharma is there. But what the WIG also has is something called the Business Council, a tiny group of sponsors who seem to be much more intimately involved in the organization than most corporate sponsors of non-profits. From the WIG website –
The Women In Government Business Council is comprised of a small, select group of industry leaders. Business Council members support the overall mission of Women in Government and provide a private sector perspective to our programs. Members also play an integral role in planning for future growth, have the ability to attend our regional conferences, and support the financial stability of the organization.
Here’s the corporate membership roster of the Council – Digene (makes the HPV test), Merck (HPV vaccine maker), GlaxoSmithKline (HPV Vaccine maker), Wellpoint (heads the council), Exxon Mobile and Verizon. A full 50% of the membership stands to benefit from the legislative efforts of the Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer. And one of the Council’s members, Digene, has a bit of a sordid past when it comes to partnering with women’s groups to forward favorable legislation.
Digene and the European Women for HPV
In 2004, a group called The European Women for HPV Testing began to campaign for legislation in England for national HPV screening. High profile female celebrities were recruited to the group to be spokespersons for the group and to lobby for legislation to approve the HPV test as primary cervical cancer screening. The European women for HPV Testing group even got mentioned in the British Medical Journal, in a manner similar to the NEJM mention of the WIG.
The problem was, the European Women for HPV Testing did not actually exist. As revealed by the Guardian Observer, the “group” was actually a front organization created on paper by the advertising company Burson-Marsteller and entirely funded by, you guessed it – Digene.
Partners with Aligned Interests?
Digene makes no bones about its strategy, which, according to their 2006 annual report, is to “expand beyond published data and medical guidelines to change the way healthcare is practiced“.
The WIG makes no bones that its strategy for tackling the issue of cervical cancer is “a collaborative approach… enlisting the support of stakeholders from across the globe” in its efforts. In their most recent report, the Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer clearly stated that the publication was made possible by funding from Digene. But on none of its press releases about HPV does the WIG reveal its relationships with Digene, Merck or GlaxoSmithKline.
One could argue that without such funding relationships, the agenda of the WIG could not be forwarded. One could argue that in the case of cervical cancer, the interests of women and those of Big Pharma are aligned. One could argue that without Big Pharma to fund it, the Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer would be nothing more than a nice name for a good cause.
But one could also ask whether the Challenge to Eliminate Cervical Cancer would even exist without Big Pharma. Both Merck and Glaxo have used PR firms to create advocacy groups whose mission is to increase awareness of HPV, and who “partner” with existing health and women’s advocacy groups. One is called The Partnership to End Cervical Cancer, and the other (which now appears defunct) is called Make the Connection.
And one could also argue that the financial ties between the WIG and Big Pharma puts the WIG in the position of being a lobbyist for Big Pharma rather than being political advocates for women.
Update on this issue here.
Disclaimer: I use the HPV test in my clinical practice, although only for ASCUS triage and not for routine screening. I have not yet given the HPV vaccine to any patient, although we are discussing it, and given the recent recommmendations of the immune practices committee of the CDC, I expect I will be giving it. I still have a lot of concerns about the high cost of the vaccine, how long immunity will last, what will happen when the next generation of vaccines hits the market, and if it will really make a difference in the health of my patients, who for the most part, recieve regular pap smear screening.
Both the speed and sense of urgency accompanying the recent movement of the HPV test and vaccine into the healthcare arena has been startling to me, and I believe heralds a new age of unprecendented pharmaceutical marketing and influence. Physicians, patients and yes, even lawmakers need to be aware of these new strategies that are being used to influence us.
Category: Second Opinions