Michele Bachmann Adds Fuel to Vaccine Doubts

Arguing against HPV vaccines as a intrusions on personal liberty, the congresswoman raised myths that have irked medical experts

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Rep. Michele Bachmann's denunciation of a cancer vaccine in the GOP presidential debate on Monday night reignited a debate that public-health experts wish would go away--the simmering doubt that a small but very vocal minority of Americans have about the safety of vaccines.

Bachmann (R-Minn.) has hit on a new argument for the vaccine doubters, who have over the years made flurry of accusations about vaccines--that they cause autism or auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes. As medical researchers patiently rebut each argument, a new one arises.

The latest: It's a violation of personal liberty to require a vaccination, especially one that protects children from a slow-growing cancer. Bachmann has taken on the HPV vaccine that protects against human papillomavirus, which causes most cases of cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the mouth and throat, the anus, and penis. The virus is extremely contagious and to be effective, it must be given before a girl or boy has had sex for the first time. The federal government recommends three injections for preteen girls, and many school districts mandate it.

"I'm a mom. And I'm a mom of three children. And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong," Bachmann said during the debate in Tampa by the Republican candidates for president. "That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest."

Bachmann also raises myths about the side effects of vaccines.

"There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine. There are very dangerous consequences," she told Fox News after the debate.

It's unlikely that a 12-year-old girl would suddenly come down with a developmental disability. It is possible that the mother misspoke and meant brain damage, but even that is highly unlikely, doctors agree.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has battled against one vaccine accusation after another. One was that measles vaccines directly cause autism by somehow leaking through the gut. Then there was the idea that whooping-cough vaccines can cause brain damage. When these fears were debunked, the vaccine-doubter community seized upon the idea that a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal was causing the brain damage.

That last one was harder to fight, and some of the most convincing material presented to news media and members of Congress involved video of brain cells dying when mercury was poured on them. Medical experts struggled to explain to a lay audience that the mercury-based compound used in the preservative affected the body differently, but eventually gave up and removed it from all childhood vaccines by 2001 to restore faith in vaccine safety.

The Institute of Medicine, an independent body that studies big health questions, appointed several panels of experts to examine the matter, and over 15 years, the panels have issued ever-stronger reports affirming the safety of vaccines. The latest came just last month. After looking at 1,000 different medical studies, the institute declared that vaccines rarely cause medical problems.

None of these reports seemed to mollify the conspiracy theorists, who simply change their arguments to support the idea that the government and the big pharmaceutical companies are colluding to make money and hurt children.

CDC had no comment on Bachmann's remarks, and it's no wonder it doesn't want to touch this one--CDC officials have been vilified by some of the most hard-core vaccine doubters, who say that the public health agency is in the pockets of the drug makers. That's also what Bachmann says about her rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

This one will be harder to fight. Medical journals cannot refute arguments that cash may have influenced a politician's decision. Perry has received more than $28,000 from HPV vaccine maker Merck since 2000, National Journal has confirmed.

Robert Goldberg, vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Interest and the author of Tabloid Medicine: How the Internet Is Being Used to Hijack Medical Science, accuses Bachmann of spreading vaccine panic. "I don't know what's more demoralizing--that the fear-mongering comes at a time when vaccination rates are dropping because parents believe the same things the candidates espouse, or that the media is once again failing to do its job and let people know that all vaccines are highly safe and effective," Goldberg says.

"The scientific data is very clear. This is a very safe and effective vaccine," says pediatrician Joseph Bocchini at Louisiana State University, who is chairman of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices working group on HPV vaccine. Yet the CDC says that only 49 percent of U.S. girls who should get the vaccine have received the first dose, and only 32 percent have received all three doses.

It's hard enough to fight those who fear vaccines against clearly contagious and fatal diseases such as whooping cough. Fighting the personal-liberty arguments about a vaccine that fights a cancer that may not develop for decades will be even more difficult.

Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty