Kaiser Health News, September 8, 2017
Shefali Luthra

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Four years ago, when meningitis B, an extremely rare but potentially lethal form of the infection, sickened a small number of college students at Princeton and the University of California-Santa Barbara, there was no vaccine against the disease sold in the U.S. Despite its availability abroad, it had never been licensed in the country due to its limited marketability.

Scientific evidence supporting an absolute need to immunize against meningitis B still falls short. The risk of contracting it is smaller than that of being involved in a car crash.

But the headlines prompted by those 13 campus cases — which resulted in one death and one double amputation — helped reshape the financial prospects for a vaccine.

Today, two brand-name vaccines, both with price tags of more than $300, are widely advertised on television and touted as a smart investment for parents who love their college-bound kids.

“As moms, we send our kids out into the world, full of hope,” says a mother in the ad for Bexsero, sold by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, as her son loads up the car to go off to college.

Says another voice, “And we don’t want something like meningitis B getting in their way.”

Analysts expect the two vaccines to generate annually at least hundreds of millions of dollars in global sales.

As new crops of students head to college, some physicians and other industry experts, though, are growing uneasy about the role of marketing in leveraging parental fears to sell the MenB vaccine — as well as ever more expensive vaccines that prevent quite rare illnesses. A complete Bexsero series costs $320; a competing vaccine, Trumenba, costs $345.

“Parents believe their children are susceptible to this terrible condition, and [drugmakers] use that fear to get parents to take action,” said Adrienne Faerber, a lecturer at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice who researches drug marketing.

The advertising, especially when coupled with news coverage, puts parents in a quandary left unresolved by federal vaccination guidelines and university requirements. [...]

bioethics health care finance infectious diseases pediatrics pharmaceuticals public health regulation vaccines