Vaccines were the biggest losers in Monday’s GOP presidential candidate’s debate, specifically those that are intended to prevent cervical cancer. Republican hopefuls Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania piled on Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the alleged horror of the government doing what it can to help vaccinate young women.
The importance of vaccinating women against the human papillomavirus — a virus that kills thousands of American women, forces tens of thousands more to undergo major surgeries to save them from death due to cervical cancer and leaves scores of other men and women to struggling with genital warts — is being debated by politicians who, arguably, could not be more self-interested in scoring cheap debating points, even at a cost of possibly killing young women.
The opponents of front-runner Perry think they have traction on the issue of whether he should have issued an executive order in 2007 mandating that girls entering sixth grade in Texas be vaccinated against cervical cancer. Bachmann, whose presidential dreams hinge on knocking off Perry, has been talking for the past few days about Perry’s irresponsibility in requiring the vaccine: “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection …is just flat out wrong,” she said during the debate.
On NBC’s TODAY Show Tuesday Bachmann said she was approached by a woman after the debate who said her daughter was harmed by the vaccine.
"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," Bachmann told TODAY.
Bachmann insists that the only reason Perry would have ordered girls to get this dangerous vaccine is that he was in the pocket of the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck.
Perry did get a $5,000 campaign donation from Merck. But, he responded to Bachmann’s charge of 'crony capitalism' by saying that he certainly cannot be bought for a mere $5,000.
How much it takes to buy Perry is a different issue. I simply want to rescue the HPV vaccine from harm at the hands of politicians willing to hurt girls to gain political advantage.
HPV vaccines are made by two companies — Merck, which licenses the Gardasil shot, and GlaxoSmithKline, which licenses Cervarix. The Merck vaccine costs about $500 bucks for a series of three shots given over six months. The vaccine prevents the HPV virus from infecting women, but if you are already infected it does no good.
The main route of HPV infection is sex. That’s why you need to vaccinate girls before they become sexually active. Numerous studies show that 5 percent of young women are sexually active at 13 years of age, a figure that rises to 20 percent by age 14. You cannot vaccinate babies because it is not clear how long the vaccine’s protection lasts and it would be really expensive to have to give the vaccine again to teenagers.
The vaccines are exceedingly safe, studies show. There have been very few reports of serious problems from them, none proven. It is simply a lie to say they can cause retardation.
On Tuesday afternoon, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in response to Bachmann's comments. "There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement," according to AAP President Dr. O. Marion Burton. "Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."
In fact, Merck’s Gardasil was tested without incident on 35,000 women for many years before being approved for use, a number far bigger than are involved in testing many new drugs.
In the five years since its approval, the vaccine has shown itself to be very effective in preventing cervical cancer, genital warts, as well as some penile and anal cancers.
What did Perry do wrong when he ordered the vaccine must be given to all the young women of Texas? Was he acting just to make Merck happy? I hope he thought he could save lives in Texas, but I do not know and he is too busy running away from his decision to clarify his rationale.
I do know that no vaccine has ever gained wide acceptance through an order coming from a politician. Americans want to know what doctors and scientists think about the value of a vaccine, not a Perry, Bachmann or Santorum or even fellow Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts or Herman Cain of Georgia. Medical experts think the HPV vaccine is effective, safe and ought to be given to all girls 12 and older. They are even OK with giving it to boys who are carriers of the virus.
Ignore the political spin that says HPV is bad medicine. HPV vaccines are useful and safe. The only political question worth asking any GOP candidate is, do they favor universal HPV vaccination for every young American woman and how do they propose to make that happen?
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.