Michele Bachmann's Anti-Vaccination Rhetoric Is Not Only Bad Science—It's Bad History
For the past week, Representative Michele Bachmann has tried to revive her flagging presidential campaign by turning a HPV vaccine into a Tea Party litmus test. During a debate on Monday, Bachmann tore into front-runner Gov. Rick Perry for his 2007 executive order that would have required all sixth grade girls in Texas to get the Gardasil vaccine, unless their parents opted out of their program.
That the executive order was overturned by the state legislature is irrelevant to the Bachmann wing of the Republican Party. The HPV vaccine is a perfect litmus test because a full-blooded Tea Party conservative would never even consider a government program to vaccinate girls against a sexually transmitted disease. Bachmann is betting that Perry’s tentative flirtation with science is enough to disqualify him in the eyes of many conservatives.
The next day on the Today Show, Bachmann veered even further into vaccination denial. She told host Matt Lauer that that a crying woman came up to her after the debate to say that her daughter had developed “mental retardation” shortly after the Gardasil vaccine was administered. Cognitive delays are not a recognized side effect of Gardasil. When radio host Sean Hannity pressed Bachmann on this point, she admitted that she has “no idea” whether the vaccine can cause cognitive deficits. Bioethicist Art Caplan was so appalled by Bachmann’s willingness to pass on unverified and alarming claims about a potentially lifesaving vaccine that he offered to donate $10,000 to charity if she could find even one medically confirmed case of a mental handicap caused by Gardasil.
Bachmann’s claims about the health risks of Gardasil were swiftly and soundly debunked by medical authorities. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a press release that there “[t]here is absolutely no scientific validity” to the claim that the HPV vaccine is dangerous or causes mental retardation.
About 35 million doses of Gardasil have been administered in the United States and about 18,000 adverse events have been reported to the CDC, of which 92 percent were classified as non-serious and 8 percent as serious. The CDC has learned of fifty-six unexplained deaths following a Gardasil vaccination, but the deaths don’t fit any particular pattern that would implicate the vaccine.
The fact that a symptom was observed after a dose of Gardasil does not prove that the vaccine caused the symptom. Only controlled clinical trials can establish causation. In clinical trials of Gardasil, the vaccine and placebo groups reported similar rates of most side effects.
On the plus side, Gardasil is nearly 100 percent effective in generating immunity to the strains of human papilloma virus that cause the majority of cervical cancers and genital warts. The CDC recommends a three-dose course of Gardasil for girls starting at age 11 or 12.
Bachmann’s grasp of political science is as shaky as her grasp of medical science. As a Tea Party conservative, Bachmann styles herself as defender of original vision of the founding fathers for America. Ironically, several of the founding fathers were champions of inoculation against infectious disease. Some even played key roles in ushering in the vaccine age.
If it hadn’t been for mandatory smallpox inoculation, the Republic might never have survived. General George Washington ordered the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777, the first large scale inoculation of an army in history. Washington was supported in this effort by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the chair of the Continental Congress’ Medical Department.
Inoculation was a precursor to vaccination which induced a milder case of smallpox by scratching the skin and rubbing in pus from a smallpox lesion. Cleric and amateur scientist Cotton Mather provided a dramatic proof of concept for inoculation when he inoculated 287 people during a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721. Only six of the inoculated individuals died, a much lower death rate than for natural smallpox. Mather gets credit for introducing smallpox inoculation to North America, but he learned about it from Onesimus, a slave who had undergone inoculation in Africa.
Despite the success of his experiment, Mather was widely vilified for mocking the will of God. At the time, many believed that smallpox was a divine punishment for sins and that trying to evade the consequences of sinning by getting inoculated was a sin in itself. That argument sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but that same logic still prevails in some quarters when discussing sexually transmitted diseases.
Someone threw a small bomb through Mather’s window with a note that said, roughly, “Inoculate this, Mather.”
Inoculation was dangerous both for the patient for others because the inoculated person remained contagious. Nearly all colonies passed laws to restrict inoculation. George Washington vehemently disagreed. He inoculated his entire household. If he had his way, inoculation against smallpox would have been mandatory.
“Surely that Impolitic Act, restraining Inoculation in Virginia, can never be continued. If I was a Member of that Assembly, I would rather move for a Law to compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties,” George Washington wrote to one his brothers in 1777.
Despite Washington’s confidence in the procedure, the decision to mandate inoculation of the Continental Army was not an easy one. The Continental Congress debated for a year over whether compulsory inoculation of troops was an overreach of central authority. The delegates worried about whether the troops would accept the inoculation.
Benjamin Rush argued persuasively that without mandatory inoculation of troops the republic might not survive. Washington, who had survived a bout of smallpox as a teenager, argued that the threat of disease was more dreadful than the sword of the enemy. In May of 1776, smallpox killed 1,800 out of 7,000 American troops in Montreal in just two weeks.
In the spring of 1777, Alexander Hamilton, then Washington’s aide-de-camp, wrote up a memo ordering all regimental colonels to divide their men into two groups, those who had already had smallpox or smallpox inoculation, and those who hadn’t. The non-inoculated were sent to Philadelphia to be dosed.
The military stakes were high. Most of the British troops were immune to the disease because they’d survived it in childhood or because they’d been inoculated; but most of the colonial troops were susceptible. Despite their celebrated independence of spirit, there is no record that the Continental troops objected to being inoculated.
A number of historians credit Washington’s decisive action on smallpox as a major contributor to the success of the revolution.
Among his many achievements, which included writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer of smallpox prevention. He was a proponent of smallpox inoculation. As a young lawyer he acted on behalf of doctors who were persecuted for performing inoculations, including one physician whose house was burned to the ground by a mob during an anti-inoculation riot.
Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, a Harvard professor and doctor and who was trying to use Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine in America, contacted then–vice president Jefferson. Jenner’s treatment, which he first tested successfully in 1796, was revolutionary because it was a true vaccine, not a milder case of smallpox.
To say Jefferson was enthusiastic about the project would be an understatement. Jefferson invented an insulated vial that allowed Waterhouse to ship samples of cowpox to Virginia where Jefferson tested the vaccine.
Jefferson foresaw the power of Jenner’s vaccine to conquer the smallpox, 175 years before it was eradicated. In 1806, during his second term as president, Jefferson wrote Jenner, “You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest. Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived.”
The first mandatory smallpox vaccination law was passed in Massachusetts in 1809. Far from being an anomalous usurpation of government power, Perry’s executive order would have been a routine exercise of state power. Mandatory vaccination policies have always been controlled at the state and local level in the United States. A landmark 1905 Supreme Court case established the power of the states to impose mandatory vaccinations.
Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party routinely abuse science and history. The founding fathers were inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment. Unlike many self-proclaimed conservatives today who elevate, they believed in the power of science and reason to improve human life.