Analysis Politics

The HPV Wars: Perry Sells Out but Bachmann Spreads Misinformation

Martha Kempner

In the most recent debate, Michele Bachmann jumped all over Rick Perry's decision to mandate the HPV vaccine and reminded viewers that he had taken money from the manufacturer.  But instead of using this as an opportunity to look at her opponent's willingness to sell out, she trotted out old arguments and spread misinformation about this lifesaving medical advance. 

So as I reported yesterday, Governor Rick Perry seems willing to sell out women’s health and just about anything else for some campaign contributions.  My article suggested that his decision to break with his conservative, anti-choice, anti-sexuality education base and mandate that girls entering the sixth grade in Texas be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) had more to do with donations from and connections to the vaccine’s manufacturer than it did with a genuine interest in protecting women’s health.  And I gave numerous other examples of policies and programs (from prison health to radioactive waste), not to mention political appointments, where Perry seems to be for sale to the highest bidder. I thought there was a lot of fodder here for going after the governor on shady practices and a lack of conviction behind his beliefs.

In the most recent Republican debate, his opponents, most notably Michele Bachmann, did go after him for the HPV mandate suggesting that Perry was bought off by the drug company and was not really “erring on the side of life.”  But instead of using this as an issue that could shed light on his character and his business practices, they focused on the HPV vaccine itself and invoked old messages of fear and shame by stringing together words like little girls, inoculations, drug company profits, and sexual diseases. And if these insinuations of the vaccine as an evil, money-making, innocence-destroying scheme weren’t enough, Bachmann followed up the debate with interviews in which she said it was dangerous and caused mental retardation. 

Wow.  I think it’s time we take a step back from politics and remember what we are talking about: a vaccine that can prevent cancer.  That’s right cancer.  For the first time ever, there is a vaccine that can prevent our children from getting cancer, and instead of jumping up and down, singing hallelujah, and praising science, these politicians are trying to make it sound like a bad thing.   

None of this is new.  The abstinence-until-marriage zealots started making these arguments years before the vaccine was even on the market.  They said it would give kids license to have sex and lead to rampant promiscuity.  When public health experts suggested the vaccine be given to girls at age 11, these zealots began to argue that it would take away their innocence and force parents to explain sex at far too early an age.  And when none of that worked, they said it hadn’t been tested well enough, screamed about side effects, and warned parents that it was dangerous.   

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I know that fighting propaganda with information is rarely effective – Michele Bachmann, for one, doesn’t seem to care about truth.  But just in case some of those people who were considering voting for her do, I am going to take a stab at diffusing her arguments with facts. 

Before I do, I want to remind everyone about HPV.  Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States.  It is estimated that 20 million Americans have HPV and that 6 million become infected each year.  HPV is easily spread from infected skin to uninfected skin.  Transmission can be prevented by condoms, however, the infected skin can be in areas that are not covered by the condom, such as on a man’s scrotum.  In truth, most people who have HPV will have no symptoms or adverse health effects and may never even know they had it.  Some people, however, will get genital warts, which may go away on their own or may need to be removed by a health care provider.  Certain strains of the virus, if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer.

Okay, that said let’s look at the arguments against the vaccine.

It will lead to promiscuity.  Let’s face it the same people say this about every advance in women’s reproductive health education and care.  We’ve heard these arguments about sex education for example: “if you teach them about sex it’s like giving them license to have it.” Research has shown that this isn’t true; sex education does not cause young people to have sex sooner, to have more sex, or to have more partners.  In fact, young people who have gone through comprehensive sexuality programs that teach about both abstinence and contraception are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and use contraception when they do become sexually active.  Same thing with making condoms available to young people; research found that students in schools where condoms were available were not more likely to have sex but were more likely to use condoms.  Need I go on? 

Depriving young people of lifesaving information and healthcare services because of these warped (and consistently disproved) ideas about promiscuity is nothing short of unconscionable.  

It will rob young girls of their innocence.  When the promiscuity argument failed to turn parents against the vaccine, zealots turned to this one spurred on by the young age at which the vaccine is recommended.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the vaccine be given at 11 or 12, not because they expect young women to be exposed to HPV at these ages but because they need to ensure that the vaccine (all three shots in the series) be given before any possible exposure otherwise it won’t work.  I understand that parents can be uncomfortable when it comes to their kids and sex but we have to fight that discomfort for the sake of their health.  The average age of first intercourse in this country is about 16 but obviously some young people have sex earlier than that and it’s really important that all of them get the vaccine before they become sexually active. 

Part of this innocence argument has been directed at the conversation parents will be “forced” to have with their kids about sex when they get the shot.  Opponents have said that the 11- and 12-year-olds are too young to talk about sex and STDs.  The sex educator in me would argue that they are not at all too young to hear this information and that the vaccine would be a good “teachable” moment to talk about the risks of sexual behavior and the various ways (abstinence, vaccines, condoms, etc.) to prevent such consequences.  But if parents aren’t comfortable doing that – that’s okay.  Children don’t require detailed explanations of the shots they’re getting – I didn’t tell my daughter what Rubella was when she got her MMR, for example – they can just be told that it’s all part of keeping them healthy.

It’s dangerous.  This is the worst one because it is the most likely to be believed by parents of all ideologies. There is an unfortunate skepticism of vaccines in this country started by research connecting them to autism which was recently found to be completely fabricated.  And yet, it is still believed.  So when Michele Bachmann goes on national television and says that some woman told her that the HPV vaccine caused her daughter’s mental retardation, some people probably believe her despite the fact that it even sounds ridiculous (the HPV vaccine is given at 11, long after developmental delays would have begun and been noticed).  

Research has shown that the HPV vaccine is very safe.  The most common reaction is a sore arm.  In response to Bachmann’s remarks the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement yesterday saying in part:  “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.”

Even some members of her own party have said that Bachmann took this one too far by repeating the claims about mental retardation. Rush Limbaugh suggested that she “might have jumped the shark,” and Erik Erikson of the RedState wrote “Michele Bachmann is overplaying her hand on this issue and it is probably going to go away.”

I suppose there is some good news in all of this. The nation is talking about HPV.  All of the morning news shows did a segment on the exchange between Bachmann and Perry over the vaccine, it’s been reported on by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, and it’s all over the blogosphere. Many of these news outlets have done a good job putting the politics aside and getting out the facts about HPV, other STDs, and the vaccine.   

Still, I find the whole incident depressing.  I can’t decide which is worse; a president that sells out women’s health for money or one that spreads misinformation for political gain. 

Worse than both of those might just be the fact that in the midst of two wars, record unemployment, increasing poverty, and a globally bad economy, the people who want to run this country think that scaring parents about teens and sex is the best use of their time (and ours).  

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