Medical board members tied to company

January 27, 2002
About six times a year, Merck and Co. pays Dr. Lawrence Frenkel as much as $750 to give talks on vaccines, including the chickenpox vaccine that Merck makes.

Frenkel is one of five members of the state Immunization Advisory Committee who have disclosed on reporting forms that they have financial interests in Merck.

When the committee voted to recommend making the vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren, Frenkel recused himself because he had a conflict of interest. But he is a strong proponent of the vaccine and he participated in committee discussions before the vote.

The University of Illinois pediatrician said drug company speaking fees, a common practice in medicine, have not influenced his views, or those of his colleagues. "Very few of us are going to let our intellectual opinion be tainted by this," he said.

These are the other committee members who have reported financial interests in Merck.

*Susanna Roberts, a DuPage County Health Department nurse, reported in 1999 that she owned $16,091 in Merck stock. She said she has since sold her stock, although she still may own Merck shares in mutual funds. In any event, she said she would not let her holdings affect how she votes.

*Robyn Gabel, executive director of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, reported that the coalition has received two $10,000 Merck grants. One grant paid for a vaccine education seminar, and the other supported a group that promotes immunizations among children under age 3. The grants "were not related to any issue before the committee," Gabel reported.

*Dr. Nancy Khardori of Southern Illinois University medical school gives talks for Merck and another vaccine maker, GlaxoSmithKline. In most years, her speaking fees total more than $5,000. But she said none of her talks has been about the chickenpox vaccine.

*Connie Keelin of the DeWitt-Piatt Bi-County Health Department reported receiving income from Merck investments. She does not know the exact amount, but said it is less than $1,000.

Jim Ritter
Chicago Sun Times