- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

From combined dispatches

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a new vaccine that for the first time combines four childhood immunizations in one shot, Merck & Co. Inc. officials said yesterday.

The vaccine, called Proquad, is approved to protect children 1 to 12 years old against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

“The approval of Proquad makes it more likely that more children can gain protection against these four diseases because fewer shots can potentially mean better compliance,” said Henry Shinefield, clinical professor of pediatrics and dermatology at the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco and a Proquad clinical investigator.

Doctors can now give just one shot to infants at their first annual checkups, rather than giving two separate injections, Merck said.

Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., said Proquad combines the company’s MMR II and Varivax vaccines.

Vaccination against the varicella virus, which causes chickenpox, was introduced in 1995, and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for children 12 to 18 months and to all susceptible people older than 13.

Before the vaccine, the intensely itchy rash of chickenpox was a hallmark of childhood and accounted for about 13,000 hospitalizations and between 100 and 150 deaths a year.

Chickenpox can also recur in later life as shingles, also known as herpes zoster, a painful and sometimes fatal inflammation.

In 2004, more than 87 percent of U.S. children got the varicella vaccine, and the incidence of the disease has been in decline. Yet it still killed at least eight adults and children in 2003 and 2004 combined, according to the CDC.

Overall vaccination rates are at record highs, with 81 percent of U.S. toddlers 19 months to 3 years old receiving the full recommended series.

The vaccine is one of four that Merck is counting on to increase annual sales by at least $1 billion after the patent on its top-selling cholesterol drug, Zocor, expires in June. Combined sales of the childhood vaccines were $559 million last year, accounting for more than half of Merck’s vaccine sales.

Merck, the third-biggest U.S. drug maker, also is seeking approval to sell vaccines for human papillomavirus infection, which is a leading cause of genital warts and cervical cancer, as well as one for the adult form of chickenpox and rotavirus gastroenteritis.

Proquad is available, Merck said, at the catalog price of $114.61 per dose as a pack of 10 single-dose vials or $120.25 as a single-dose vial.

Shares of Merck, which is battling a slew of product-liability lawsuits over its withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, closed 16 cents higher at $28.99 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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