The Vaccine makers have been very active using DTC to build awareness for some very serious diseases. Prevnar 13 from Pfizer has had a high spend campaign for its pneumonia vaccine. HPV has also been prominently promoted by Merck for Gardasil. Recently two new vaccines for meningitis B have hit the market and are going head to head. Pfizer’s Trumenba and GSK’s Bexsero both are going after the 10-25 year old market.
Meningitis B is a very serious bacterial disease involving inflammation of the spinal cord or brain. While rare it is deadly for about 10% of those afflicted and causes lifelong damage in many more who survive. About 10% of us have the bacteria in our saliva but overwhelmingly it does not cause meningitis. For about 600-1000 people annually the disease is devastating because it rapidly can cause death.
Trumenba became available in late 2015 and Bexsero a few months later. Trumenba began heavy DTC 3Q 2016 with Bexsero starting this June. Analysts estimate the meningitis market at about $2 billion. These are interesting case studies on DTC for a rare disease. The odds of getting meningitis are very low but the impact is so devastating that physicians, young adults and their parents are being advised by the CDC to consider these vaccines.
Drug makers have been criticized by some physicians and consumer groups for using fear based campaigns for vaccines. Why scare teens and parents? Is it right to use fear as a motivator in these DTC ads? Is it ethical to show the devastation of a disease that is rare to incentivize people to get vaccinated?
Yes, it is because untreated meningitis consequences are so bad. The vaccine is safe. It is moderate in price. The cost is usually covered by college health clinics but even self pay is reasonable at $350-600 for the series of injections. The ads for both vaccine brands are hard hitting and are directed at parents to show what could happen if the child got meningitis B. Of course, the drug makers want to increase the use of their vaccines and they know the market is wide open and incidence of use is currently low. They are trying to warn parents and yes to scare them. Sometimes we need to be scared into action. I see nothing wrong in these ads because the disease is a real, albeit low risk, and can be controlled with vaccines.
Would we have massive outbreaks of meningitis B without these vaccines? No, but saving lives and long term disability of teens and college aged kids is the issue. Society needs to balance the cost to payers for the vaccine versus the risks to the young adult population. Because the disease can spread so quickly any campus that gets a case will cause widespread fear across the community.
We want drug makers to invest in disease prevention for what we see now and may face in the future. If drug makers can develop markets through DTC they will be willing to devote more R&D investment to the vaccine segment. Vaccines and antibiotics are generally lower profit categories because use is short term. Let’s hope for success for current vaccines being advertised because one day we will need to be protected from a pandemic and must have a well developed vaccine infrastructure at big pharma.