- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Virginia Delegate John J. Welch III isn’t opposed to the use of Merck & Co.’s new vaccine against a sexually transmitted, cancer-causing virus — he just doesn’t think the state should require it for schoolgirls.

“This bill was brought forward by a drug company,” Mr. Welch said. “So there was a red flag right there, and I immediately began paying attention to it.”

But the Virginia Beach Republican expects the bill to become law and that Merck & Co. — the lone maker of Gardasil — will benefit greatly.

Merck, which yesterday suspended an expensive behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign, had pushed local lawmakers in more than 20 states to bar preteens from attending school unless they were inoculated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

From steakhouse meals for elected officials in North Carolina to a lobbying job for a former top staffer of the Texas governor, Merck had lobbied officials on numerous issues, but HPV is a major topic of discussion, disclosure reports filed in statehouses across the country show.

In Washington, Merck lobbyists had contact with government attorneys for the D.C. Department of Health and the D.C. Council during 2005 and last year, according to campaign-finance filings.

D.C. Council member David Catania, at-large independent, who has been a vocal critic of the pharmaceutical industry on other issues, sponsored the District’s HPV legislation with council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat.

Mr. Catania said he has never met with anyone from Merck or its representatives.

“I think it’s something that makes sense. The District has the highest rates of cervical cancer in the country,” said Mr. Catania, whose proposal city officials have just begun to debate.

According to the District’s 2005-2010 Cancer Control Plan, about 50 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the District.

“Even the highest cervical cancer rates in the country translate into relatively few women affected,” the city’s cancer plan states, “… but all cases of invasive cervical cancer — especially those arising from a lack of screening or adequate follow-up — signal that public health system’s failure to detect and treat this disease at its early, pre-invasive stage.”

HPV causes 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts.

Mrs. Cheh said she wasn’t aware that Merck had been lobbying officials, and that she never met with anyone from the company. She said she is proposing the legislation because “if we have a cancer vaccine, we need to use it.”

“Cervical cancer is very painful and debilitating, and it’s a killer,” she said.

Legislation in the District and in Virginia, like similar bills in more than a dozen states, mandates HPV vaccination for girls before entering the sixth grade. The measures in the District and Virginia permit parents and guardians to opt out of the vaccination.

The pharmaceutical company, which recently began a big television and print ad campaign, since 2005 spent up to $260,000 for lobbyists in Texas alone, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry already has signed HPV legislation into law, according to disclosure reports.

According to 2005 and 2006 filings with the Texas Ethics Commission, Merck paid up to $130,000 per year combined to three lobbyists in Texas, including up to $24,999 last year to Mr. Perry’s former chief of staff, Michael Toomey.

It’s a situation that critics in Texas have seized upon as they seek to convince the governor to reconsider his decision to sign the HPV vaccination measure into law.

The governor’s spokesman, Krista Moody, said Mr. Perry hasn’t spoken to anyone from Merck or to his old chief of staff about the HPV vaccination.

“Any assertion this is a political move or because of a political relationship is absurd,” she said. “The governor issued this executive order to ensure women have access to an important vaccine that prevents cancer.”

Merck officials earlier this month said their lobbyists work with elected and appointed officials in all 50 states on many issues affecting health policy, pharmaceutical research and innovation.

“Our efforts for Gardasil vary state by state, and current efforts to provide information about HPV disease and Gardasil focus on states that have pending legislation,” Merck said.

But yesterday the drugmaker suspended all lobbying efforts for Gardasil, saying its efforts for school-mandated use had distracted from its goal of preventing cervical cancer.

In Virginia, Merck spent more than $70,000 in lobbying fees since 2005. The company also has donated to numerous political campaigns.

Delegate Phillip A. Hamilton, Newport News Republican, who sponsored the HPV bill, has received $10,000 in Merck contributions since 1997, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Mr. Hamilton said Merck played no role in his decision to sponsor the bill. He said nobody from the company approached him about the idea of proposing the vaccine.

Instead, he said health care groups brought the proposal to him because of his role as chairman of the health committee.

Mr. Hamilton said most of the feedback he has received from constituents has been in favor of the vaccine.

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