A couple of days ago Representative Michele Bachmann made a completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claim on the Today Show that vaccines against HPV can have “very serious side effects” including “mental retardation.”
Just for funsies, let’s watch the clips of Bachmann’s comments via The Daily Show.
Before I continue, let me be very clear. Actually, let the CDC be very clear:
All vaccines used in the United States are required to go through years of extensive safety testing before they are licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Once in use, they are continually monitored for their safety and effectiveness.
There are two human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix. These vaccines are available to protect females against the two HPV types that cause most cervical cancers. Gardasil was studied in more than 29,000 males and females, and Cervarix was studied in over 30,000 females during clinical trials. Cervarix had been in use outside of the U.S. prior to licensing by the FDA.
Let’s start chronologically. Bachmann’s seemingly anti-immunization rhetoric actually started during the Republican Debate. “To have innocent little twelve year old girls be forced to have a government injection is just flat out wrong,” she said. “I’m offended for all the little girls and parents that didn’t have a choice.” Bachmann’s use of the phrase “government injection” makes the HPV vaccine sound much more invasive than it really is. The HPV vaccines are literally just three shots in the upper arm. It does not violate “little girls.”
Not only do I take serious issue with referring to adolescents and preadolescents as “little girls,” I want to point out that the CDC recommends the HPV vaccine at ages 11 or 12 specifically because “this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.” This isn’t some big plot to encourage teenagers to start having sex (which, by the way, they will regardless). Requiring immunization, like public schools do in all 50 states including Bachmann’s state of Minnesota, does not subvert parenting. Requiring immunization (from all sorts of illnesses) prevents deaths.
I recognize that Bachmann’s intent may have been to highlight that Governor Rick Perry’s decision to mandate the HPV vaccine for all twelve-year-old girls was influenced by his political connection to Merck, the makers of Gardasil. It’s true that Merck has made large donations to Perry’s campaign. But there’s no reason for Bachmann to blame the vaccine as opposed to Perry’s questionable motives.
If you watched the above video, you know that Bachmann took her anti-immunization rhetoric a step further on the Today Show, claiming that a mother told her that Gardasil caused mental retardation in her daughter. While Bachmann didn’t technically say, “watch out everyone, the HPV vaccines is going to cause cognitive regression in your daughters,” she did indeed infer that this completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claim was true. Since no one can disprove her anecdote — who’s to say a mother didn’t come up to her and tell that story? — Bachmann’s comments could very easily create unfounded concern amongst parents. Even if Bachmann really did have this encounter and heard such a story, I’m surprised that she could not recognize that sometimes two incidents occur that are not causal. For instance, a child could conceivably have a vaccine and also a developmental disability and they could be completely unrelated.
Refusing to backtrack, Bachmann insists that she wasn’t attesting to the accuracy of the statements about the vaccine, simply passing on what she had heard. “I wasn’t speaking as a doctor. I wasn’t speaking as a scientist, I was merely passing on… what I had heard.” This doesn’t excuse Bachmann’s behavior. As a current congresswoman and a political candidate, she should recognize that her words will be assumed true by millions of viewers who might not hear the redaction. Also, as a congresswoman and a political candidate, she should recognize that she isn’t a medical professional, and as such should maybe leave the sweeping statements about potentially lifesaving (and harmless!) medical procedures to people who are.
As both the New York Times and Jezebel have already explained, these sorts of completely incorrect, false, wrong, bogus and detrimental claims about vaccines can have a real lasting impact on public health. Professor Gregory Zimet, co-leader of the cancer control program at Indiana University pointed out to The Guardian that “[part] of the issue will be how long the discussion is prominent in the news. If this is brought up every time the Republican candidates have a debate, if misinformation is repeatedly expressed and covered nationally, it can have a negative effect.” (Yes, I recognize I am part of this media bringing this up.)
This sentiment was echoed by pediatric professor and committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics member Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby. In the New York Times, Willoughby points out, “These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford.” HPV vaccination rates are already lower than desired. According to the CDC, in 2010 only 49% of girls ages 13-17 received the first dose of the vaccine, with only 32% receiving all three. Zimet explains, “From the public health point of view that is inadequate… when you have a vaccine that likely prevents around 70% of cervical cancers, but fewer than half of girls are receiving all three doses, the ultimate effect is dampened.”
To make matters worse, Bachmann’s comments come at a time when parents are increasingly opting out of vaccinating their children despite continuous research indicating there is very little risk associated with vaccines. The Institute of Medicine reported that “there was enough evidence to reject outright any links between immunizations and certain more serious health conditions including autism, Type 1 diabetes, asthma, and Bell’s palsy.” Somehow, even without scientific basis, vaccine stigma remains. It’s comments like Bachmann’s that allow this proliferation of myths and lies about vaccines that have been around since the first smallpox vaccine. Regardless of my political alignment, it is my opinion that Bachmann’s willingness to undermine public health efforts without any scientific evidence purely for political reasons indicates a serious deficit of ethical character.
It should be noted that there are some mild side effects for all types of vaccinations. For the HPV vaccination, this includes pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, fever or fainting. The CDC lays out the side effects of different children’s vaccines pretty clearly, and obviously anyone with a preexisting condition should talk to their doctor (but it’s not like you’re all going to be going out and vaccinating yourself at home without a doctor anyway).
I could dwell on said myths about vaccines and explain how each one lacks scientific basis. Unfortunately misleading health information is so permeating that I would likely end up continuing the reporting of inaccurate information instead of convincing anyone to the contrary. Instead, I encourage you to vaccinate yourself and those children you fought so hard to raise/adopt/second parent adopt/create an accepting community for. Immunization saves lives. It truly does.
+The HPV vaccines prevent about 70% of cervical cancers.
+In addition to cervical cancer, HPV can also cause vaginal, vulvar and penile cancer.
+If measles vaccinations were stopped, each year about 2.7 million measles deaths worldwide could be expected. As many as three of every 1,000 persons with measles will die in the U.S.
+Measles is so contagious, 96% of the population must be vaccinated to secure herd immunity.
+Hib meningitis (Haemophilus Influenzae Type b Meningitis) once killed 600 children each year and left many survivors deaf, experiencing seizures, or mentally retarded. Since introduction of the conjugate Hib vaccine in December 1987, the incidence of Hib has declined by 98%.
+In infants, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) can cause pneumonia and lead to brain damage, seizures, and mental retardation. Of the 181 persons who died from pertussis from 2000-2008, 166 of these were less than six months old.
+Before pneumococcal conjugate vaccine became available for children, pneumococcus caused 63,000 cases of invasive pneumococcal disease and 6,100 deaths in the U.S. each year.
+Approximately 25 percent of children who become infected with life-long hepatitis B virus would be expected to die of related liver disease as adults.
+In the US in 1921, a total of 206,000 diphtheria cases and 15,520 diphtheria deaths were reported.
+Approximately 20% of reported cases of tetanus end in death.
+Before the mumps vaccine was introduced, mumps was a major cause of deafness in children
If you want to hear more on this issue, I suggest you hear it from a woman much smarter than I. Oh yeah, and get your goddamn flu shot.