Rick Perry's Ties With Merck Run Deep

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

AUSTIN (AP) -- Gov. Rick Perry ordered Friday that schoolgirls in Texas must be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, making Texas the first state to require the shots.

The girls will have to get Merck & Co.'s new vaccine against strains of the human papillomavirus, or HPV, that are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer.

Merck is bankrolling efforts to pass laws in state legislatures across the country mandating it Gardasil vaccine for girls as young as 11 or 12. It doubled its lobbying budget in Texas and has funneled money through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators around the country.

Details of the order were not immediately available, but the governor's office confirmed to The Associated Press that he was signing the order and he would comment Friday afternoon.

Perry has several ties to Merck and Women in Government. One of the drug company's three lobbyists in Texas is Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff. His current chief of staff's mother-in-law, Texas Republican state Rep. Dianne White Delisi, is a state director for Women in Government.

Toomey was expected to be able to woo conservative legislators concerned about the requirement stepping on parent's rights and about signaling tacit approval of sexual activity to young girls. Delisi, as head of the House public health committee, which likely would have considered legislation filed by a Democratic member, also would have helped ease conservative opposition.

Perry also received $6,000 from Merck's political action committee during his re-election campaign.

It wasn't immediately clear how long the order would last and whether the legislation was still necessary. However it could have been difficult to muster support from lawmakers who champion abstinence education and parents' rights.

Perry, a conservative Christian who opposes abortion rights and stem- cell research using embryonic cells, counts on the religious right for his political base.

But he has said the cervical cancer vaccine is no different than the one that protects children against polio.

"If there are diseases in our society that are going to cost us large amounts of money, it just makes good economic sense, not to mention the health and well being of these individuals to have those vaccines available," he said.

Texas allows parents to opt out of inoculations by filing an affidavit stating that he or she objected to the vaccine for religious or philosophical reasons.

Even with such provisions, however, conservative groups say mandates take away parents' rights to be the primary medical decision maker for their children.

The federal government approved Gardasil in June, and a government advisory panel has recommended that all girls get the shots at 11 and 12, before they are likely to be sexually active.

The New Jersey-based drug company could generate billions in sales if Gardasil _ at $360 for the three-shot regimen _ were made mandatory across the country. Most insurance companies now cover the vaccine, which has been shown to have no serious side effects.

Merck spokeswoman Janet Skidmore would not say how much the company is spending on lobbyists or how much it has donated to Women in Government. Susan Crosby, the group's president, also declined to specify how much the drug company gave.

A top official from Merck's vaccine division sits on Women in Government's business council, and many of the bills around the country have been introduced by members of Women in Government.


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