As reported earlier this week on Modern School, right wing Christian fundamentalist Rick Perry, supported rampant teen sex in the state of Texas by mandating Guardsil (HPV) vaccinations for teen girls, in opposition to the rhetoric and philosophy of his ilk. Not surprisingly, it turns out that nearly $30,000 was donated to his gubernatorial campaign by drug giant Merck, manufacturer of Guardasil.
Regardless of his motivations, the policy would certainly save lives. Guardasil protects against human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer, a disease that currently has a fatality rate higher than 30% (see Discover Magazine Blogs “Bad Astronomy”).
Despite the benefits in terms of public health, Perry’s GOP presidential nemesis Michele Bachmann used the Guardasil flap as an opportunity to rip him a new orifice to stick his head into (and in the process, wedged her head more deeply into her own orifice). During the recent GOP debate she said that Gardasil "can have very dangerous side effects." She also said that a woman came up to her claiming that her daughter became mentally retarded because of a Guardasil vaccination.
Such high profile criticism of a vaccine will certainly provide strong inspiration to the anti-vax movement, which thrives on pseudoscience, superstition, and unsupported claims. The problem is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the vaccine can cause mental retardation, while other side effects and dangers are relatively minor (see Michele Bachmann needles Perry on vaccinations from Discover Magazine blogs).
Not only has there never been a single confirmed case of Guardasil-induced mental retardation, but a bioethicist has offered Bachmann $10,000 if she can provide some evidence for her claim.
What is most appalling and dangerous is that such a claim could be made by a presidential candidate and left unchallenged by the media. Bachmann’s source was an unnamed woman who may or may not exist, while there was no vetting or confirmation by any doctors or scientists. As far as anyone knows, the claim could have been fabricated by Bachmann or her handlers. However, even if the woman does exist and did make the claim, that does not make it true and Bachmann should not have publicized the claim until she had solid evidence from medical or scientific professionals. By doing so, she fanned the flames of anti-vaccination hysteria and the general anti-science tendency that has been growing in this country.
The anti-vaccination movement is based almost entirely on fear, while fear itself depends more on the perception of a threat than the actuality of a threat. It is like crying “fire” in a crowded theater: people will likely react first to the cry, and not stop and consider whether there is any truth to the claim.
When the government said Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks or that he had weapons of mass destruction, this was sufficient to terrify the American public and convince them to support an unprovoked war and the curtailing of their rights and freedoms at home, despite the fact that neither claim was true and the evidence against both claims was readily available to those willing to look a little more deeply.
When Andrew Wakeman claimed he had evidence that vaccines caused autism, parents were quick to believe him and to deny vaccinations to their children, placing their own children and everyone else at increased risk for measles, pertussis, and other serious and preventable diseases. Yet when Wakeman was completely discredited, his paper retracted, and his license to practice medicine revoked for fraud and misconduct related to his anti-vaccination work, the damage had already been done. Despite the fact that it has been repeatedly demonstrated that vaccines do not cause autism and that there have been no documented and verified cases of vaccines causing autism, the seeds of fear had been so deeply planted that large numbers of people are still convinced that vaccines do in fact cause autism.
GOP contender Ron Paul has also jumped into the fracas. A political action committee supporting his candidacy produced a video calling Gardasil "a STD vaccine," a clever manipulation that implies that the drug allows wild, disease-free sexual activity. This, of course, is exactly the kind of anti-sex, anti-health and anti-teen spin that religious conservatives have been putting on the drug all along.
In actuality, Guardasil is a drug that protects against one deadly but preventable disease. It does not protect against any other STDS or against pregnancy, so it is not even close to a free-ticket to free love. Vaccinating teenagers against this disease does not promote or encourage unprotected or premarital sex any more than sex education programs or access to condoms do. There are still plenty of reasons for children to avoid or delay sexual activity and there are plenty of children will continue to have unprotected sexual encounters despite access to condoms, birth control and Guardasil.
What this debate is really about is America’s Puritanical attitudes toward sex and its hypocritical attitudes toward teenagers (plus some political grandstanding). In reality, teenage pregnancy and STD rates have been steadily declining for the past decade, while STD and unplanned pregnancy rates for their parents’ and grandparents’ generations have been climbing.