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Commentary

The Age of Medical Progress
Denver Post, 10-10-05

The Denver Post points out that while we don’t have Star Trek-style medicine yet, we do have treatments like Merck’s cervical cancer vaccine that were unthinkable just a few decades ago:

A 1960s Twilight Zone episode talked about a vaccine against cancer, an idea that seemed fanciful at the time. But in recent years researchers have focused on the link between viruses and cancer, raising the prospect vaccines could prevent some tumors. Last week, such efforts leapt forward when Merck & Co. said its vaccine proved 100 percent effective against the main viruses that cause most cervical cancer.
The finding will be meaningful to billions of women only if politicians help make the vaccine widely available. In this country, medical professionals should encourage women, even young teenagers, to get the vaccine - and insurers and HMOs need to cover the expense for their policyholders.
Yet only 4,000 of the 270,000 cervical cancer deaths globally occur in this country. The U.S. toll is low because most American women get routine checkups, including Pap smears, which detect the cancer is its early stages. That's not the case in developing nations where such exams are expensive or unavailable. The World Health Organization and other agencies thus should provide the vaccine in impoverished locations. Wide use of the vaccine could control cervical cancer much as public health efforts eradicated smallpox and, if less so, polio.

Merck’s vaccine underscores the importance of private-sector biomedical research and its role in the development of new medicines and new diagnostics. While academics thrive on government-funded research and peer approval, and politicians fret over votes, companies are driven by market forces to prove their worth every day—or close up shop. No profits, no products.

Unfortunately, this reality has not prevented industry critics from calling for pharmaceutical price controls in the U.S. Policymakers, however, should resist the temptation to demonize industry profits. If prices for new medical discoveries drop too steeply, companies and investors can always find better ways to invest their capital. Patients, however, would be left with far fewer new medical miracles like Merck's vaccine.



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