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November 10, 2015

Is Government Data being Used to Deliver Drug Company Profits?

Mike Donnelly Staff Attorney Mike Donnelly answers questions and assists members regarding legal issues in Michigan. He and his wife homeschool.

Hundreds of thousands of families in Indiana and Michigan recently received letters from their respective departments of health notifying them of their children’s immunization status and ordering them to schedule additional vaccinations. Many families were unaware that officials had access to such private information or that it had been compiled into statewide databases. Some of the parents contacted were HSLDA members who subsequently sought advice from HSLDA—particularly regarding the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV).

HSLDA does not take a position on whether parents should immunize their children. But we do take a very strong stance that all decisions relating to the health and well-being of children should be made by parents. Parents know their children best and are thus best-suited to make choices regarding their welfare.

In the case of the recent letters, private data was used to highlight one particularly controversial vaccine that is not required by law in either Indiana or Michigan: the HPV vaccine.

Controversial Issue

The HPV vaccine is fairly new and has been somewhat controversial. Some studies have shown that there is an increased risk of cervical and some other cancers in those who contract HPV. HPV is primarily transmitted through sexual contact which is one reason some parents prefer not to immunize young children against it.

While governor of Texas, Rick Perry signed an executive order requiring that all girls in the state receive the vaccine. CBS news subsequently reported that the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which manufactures an HPV vaccine, had donated $6,000 to Perry’s re-election campaign and had ties to Perry’s campaign staff. One of three available vaccines for HPV, Gardasil, is Merck’s top seller, bringing in $1.7 billion in sales according an Atlantic online report in February 2015. 

It strikes HSLDA as odd that two letters, sent to hundreds of thousands of citizens in two different states, singled out a non-required vaccine that also happened to be a big money maker for pharmaceutical companies.

The Michigan letter included specific and personal data relating to individual child’s immunization records and ordered parents to make an appointment to have their children immunized. The letter did not clearly state that the HPV vaccine is non-mandatory, but it did contain a scary-sounding paragraph warning readers that HPV can lead to cancer. The American Cancer Society reports on its website that there are 1.65 million new cancers each year.  The CDC reports that approximately 27,000 cancers are caused by HPV. View HSLDA’s report on the Indiana letter.


HSLDA opposes the use of private medical information, collected by force of law from citizens, being used to benefit for-profit companies. In both cases the letters were misleading by failing to contain accurate statements or full information regarding what vaccines were actually required by law. The letters also did not mention the availability of exemptions for vaccination or the possibility for a parent to opt their children out of the databases. View an opt-out for Michigan residents

Although these letters may only give the appearance of a possible improper relationship between the departments of health and drug companies, these letters did single out one vaccine.  And, as noted, this is not the first time government action has been used to compel parents to obtain a particular vaccination.  Why wasn’t information included to explain what vaccines actually are required by law?  Or about how parents can opt out of the database? Or where parents could obtain an exemption from vaccination if they desired?

One wonders what drug companies or their lobbyists have been doing in Indiana and Michigan to receive such singularly positive attention for this particular vaccine? This situation demonstrates why citizens are concerned with government data collection activities.

Let Parents Decide

Again, HSLDA does not take any position on whether parents should immunize their children or not. But we do believe that government should not be putting its heavy hand on the scales to unduly influence parents or especially using excessive rhetoric to frighten citizens to take what a government agent has deemed the desired course of action. Rather, government should be disseminating information in a more objective manner so that citizens can make their own informed decisions. 

We would hope that others, such as concerned legislators or investigative journalists, would want to probe more deeply into the relationships between drug companies and the behavior by the Indiana and Michigan departments of health. We also think it would be appropriate for legislators in these and other states with immunization databases to re-evaluate the safeguards in place to prevent this kind of inappropriate (and possibly unethical) use of personal health information. It might even be fitting to hold hearings in Indiana and Michigan to determine if there has been any wrongdoing. Immunization databases may have been motivated by good intentions, but these letters show how forced data collection can be used improperly.

Behavior like this is precisely why citizens are rightly suspicious of any plan by government to collect more data. If government agencies would allow people to make their own decisions, they wouldn’t need these Big Brother databases and coercive letters. The government should simply trust parents to decide, in consultation with healthcare providers, what medical treatment is best for their own children.

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