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.