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Playing Politics With Little Girls’ Lives

Candidates who bring the HPV vaccine into the political arena are playing with fire.

You and I are just getting to know one another. While I’ve been writing a for Wilton Patch for the last year, and readers there are more familiar with where I stand on many things, this “Patch In” column is only in its third week. I thought we’d take it slow.

Earlier this week someone sent me the link to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It was about GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann’s recent comments about the human papillomavirus (or HPV) vaccine that she made during the recent campaign debates. My friend thought it would make good fodder for a column, and knew I’d be interested in the subject.

I was a little hesitant to write about it in this forum. Heck, it’s still early in our relationship and you’re just getting to know bits and pieces about where I stand on certain issues and what my life philosophies are. And isn’t this issue really more of a national one, since it’s taking place on the presidential campaign stages rather than right here in Fairfield County?

But then I remembered: We have children here in Fairfield County too.

Because, truly, what’s at the heart of the brouhaha, and what’s getting forgotten in favor of presidential politics and soundbites, are children.

Backtracking a little to explain, Rep. Bachmann has gone on the attack against Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the 2007 move he made in his state issuing an executive order mandating sixth-grade girls receive a vaccine against HPV. Assuming her intent was to characterize Perry’s action as creating legislation without approval from the state’s legislative body, Bachmann fired off this soundbite during the debate:

“To have innocent little 12 year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”

After the debate was concluded, she also asserted that HPV vaccines cause “mental retardation.”

I think you and I are going to get to know one another much faster than I first thought.

Political affiliations aside, what’s most concerning to me is how science and health—specifically the health of female children—is now so politicized. Someone has taken a medical issue that’s backed by scientific research and fact, and hijacked it for the purpose of political attack, spin and polling points.

What are the medical facts? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer and genital warts, in addition to being linked to other kinds of cancers and diseases. While there are multiple strains of HPV, and not all of them directly cause cancer, cervical cancer is still the second leading cancer-killer of women worldwide.

HPV is also the most common sexually transmitted disease today.

A-ha! Is that what makes this issue hot and—pardon the media parlance pun—sexy? Because somehow when the topic of “innocent little 12 year old girls” gets mixed up with protecting them from a virus that gets transmitted through sexual contact, it suddenly gets to be co-opted by politicians on the basis of protecting moral values—and it gets them airtime.

In full disclosure, I grew up in a household that was comfortable talking about science, medicine and fact. My dad is an OBGYN, so we weren’t afraid of using correct anatomical terminology or talking about human sexuality. It’s formed the basis for the way I approach issues like this one.

The science shows that in order for this vaccine to work it needs to be administered before a person becomes sexually active. According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics following the media uproar after Bachmann’s comments, they “recommend that girls receive [the] HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That’s because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity.”

That recommendation was echoed by the CDC and American Academy of Family Physicians.

Please note, it was me who italicized the statement’s words “well before” to emphasize that science isn’t encouraging little girls to start being sexually active earlier. Knowing that’s been the objection for some opposed to this vaccine, I wanted to make the demarcation between science and morality even clearer.

Let's continue with the facts, especially with regard to Bachmann's baseless assertion about the effects of giving the vaccine, and add what the AAP had to say:

"The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."

Legislation concerning vaccines and immunizations is written at the state level. Currently there are no laws on Connecticut books about anything having to do with HPV—at all. Shortly after it was recommended at the federal level in 2006 that girls aged 11 and 12 receive routine vaccinations, several states—including Connecticut—began debate on it. Nothing has passed our legislatures, however, as of 2007, the last year anything on HPV was brought up for discussion. (The CT Department of Health does have a fact sheet on HPV.)

Health and vaccine policy does get set by government, especially when it protects the lives of the public against epidemics—think chicken pox, measles, and many others. There’s usually nothing compulsory and parents have the right to make an ultimate choice to opt out, as was the case in Texas (although Gov. Perry’s executive order was ultimately overturned by his legislature).

It doesn’t need to be an issue that gets divvied up based on political party. Just look at Virginia, where a state mandate for the HPV vaccine was passed with the support of politicians in both parties. Chris Stolle, a Republican state delegate there told the Huffington Post, "I'm a conservative Republican and I certainly do believe in limited government and limited interference of government into our lives. As we look at the function of government, I would put number one as being to protect its citizens. I think that a vaccination program for a disease that's epidemic falls very clearly within the realms of a small limited government."

What is unfortunately lost in this debate is the opportunity for the politicians to use science to enlighten and protect. The resulting costs from such a fatal disease—impacting families, hospitals, insurers, and society—is a potentially too high a price to pay.

Instead, code words and push-button fear messages get bandied about, furthering the campaign at the expense of some of our youngest citizens, playing political roulette with our daughters’ lives.

Peg September 18, 2011 at 12:37 PM
We may be just getting to know one another, but more articles like "Playing Politics With Little Girls Lives" will surely lead to our becoming very good friends indeed! Excellent article on a critical issue.
Jerry McTigue September 18, 2011 at 04:47 PM
Well put. Michelle Bachmann has a penchant for shooting first before getting her facts straight. Her wreckless statements about the vaccine being "dangerous" and possibly causing mental retardation are putting the millions of "innocent 11- and 12-year-old girls" she purports to protect in jeopardy. How utterly ignorant and irresponsible, especially for someone trying to become leader of the free world. God help us.
Jennifer Hochberg September 18, 2011 at 04:47 PM
I second the thought....excellent article on a very important issue that affects women's /girl's health!
v September 18, 2011 at 06:46 PM
Oh yes, Jennifer, I agree that this is a very informative and well written article. Though I don't suspect that HPV exists here in this most perfect town of Fairfield. Furthermore, I believe that the children of Fairfield are far too intelligent and perfect to ever contract Human Papilloma Virus. To sum it up, I also believe that Fairfield parents are too brainy and perfect to fail to educate their daughters about proper HPV prevention. It's just too perfect of a place for HPV to exist, anyway. And, why would HPV want to exist here, why?
Maggie Moffitt Rahe September 18, 2011 at 06:55 PM
While the vaccine is being given to younger girls at age 11 or 12 to protect them from diseases later on, I still believe everyone has a right to chose not to vaccinate children. It certainly should not be a "**state mandated decision! Great article!
Lori September 18, 2011 at 07:00 PM
Bachmann's comments after the debate aside, for me the key point of her soundbite was the word "forced" -- government should not FORCE a person to get a vaccine, especially for a disease that is preventable by one's choices. "Pro-choice" is such a big deal these days - how about some respect for people who want to make their own choice in whether they vaccinate their children or not?
JM September 18, 2011 at 11:49 PM
I disagree that the key point was her reference to being forced -- the key point was in her shameless assertion about mental retardation....a blatant attempt to frighten citizens (who would LIKE to trust their public officials) and garner attention to her political ambitions. She needs to retract that, just as publicly. Anyone want to bet that she won't????
CTPati September 21, 2011 at 04:58 PM
Parents may want to check some FACTS before jumping on the Gardasil bandwagon: 1) "Studies so far show the vaccines protect for four or five years"...so "vaccinating an 11-year-old girl might not protect her when she needs it most — in her most sexually active years." 2) "Most cervix cancer can be prevented. Finding abnormal cell changes early with a Pap test can save your life. Today, cervix cancer is rare in women who get their Pap tests." "• HPV is a virus that can lead to cervix cancer. • Almost all women who have had sex will have HPV at some time, but very few women will get cervix cancer. • Most HPV infections go away without causing cervix changes. HPV does not have any symptoms and cannot be treated. But the cell changes that HPV can cause in the cervix can be treated. • HPV that does not go away over many years can lead to cervix cancer." http://www.npr.org/2011/09/19/140543977/hpv-vaccine-the-science-behind-the-controversy http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/InfectiousAgents/HPV/what-women-should-know-about-cervix-cancer-and-hpv
TaxPayer September 22, 2011 at 02:23 AM
Whether or not to mandate vaccinations??? Ever hear of the chicken pox vaccine or you don't go to school?
CTPati September 22, 2011 at 04:31 AM
You obviously did not read the "facts" above your uninformed comment. HPV is not passively communicable as is chicken pox--so not getting it does not cause other children to get sick. Also, "HPV does not have any symptoms" while chicken pox is quite unpleasant. You probably also did not know that Gardasil costs $400 and takes 3 doses--for protection of only "four or five years."
CAB September 22, 2011 at 10:56 AM
It's really very simple -- if you want to get your children vaccinated then do it -- if you don't then don't. So far this is not a mandated vaccine, so stop all the back and forth. It's an individual choice.
fairfield newcomer September 27, 2011 at 12:02 PM
Do you really have the right to make a decision that your child has to live with for a lifetime? Because you feel there may be a gram of truth in the ramblings of the vaccine opposers I wonder if you have the right to set the script for your child's health for the remainder of her life. Why not seek more informed information. Unfortunately, information and test results won't convince those who oppose vaccinations.
CTPati September 27, 2011 at 04:56 PM
fairfield newcomer, did you even read the "informed information" [sic] that I posted on 9/21? ie: 1) "Studies so far show the vaccines protect for four or five years"...so "vaccinating an 11-year-old girl might not protect her when she needs it most — in her most sexually active years." 2) "Most cervix cancer can be prevented....Today, cervix cancer is rare in women who get their Pap tests." "• Almost all women who have had sex will have HPV at some time, but very few women will get cervix cancer. • Most HPV infections go away without causing cervix changes."... Further, "Dr. Diane Harper, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, says the vaccine is being way oversold."... "Harper worked on studies that got the vaccines approved."... "Harper changed her mind when the vaccine makers started lobbying state legislatures to require schoolkids to get vaccinated. "'Ninety-five percent of women who are infected with HPV never, ever get cervical cancer,' she says. 'It seemed very odd to be mandating something for which 95 percent of infections never amount to anything.' "By Harper's calculations, the tried-and-true method of regular Pap smears is a more effective way to prevent cervical cancer than the vaccines. 'Pap smear screening is far and away the biggest thing a woman can do to protect herself, to prevent cervical cancer,' she says."... (npr cited above)
Heather Dean September 28, 2011 at 12:09 AM
Lots of great comments on the letter. Completely agree with Peg as well. Well done.
Faith September 28, 2011 at 12:22 AM
Oral cancers in non- smokers is hugely on the rise in males in the 40+age group. HPV causes most oral cancers in non-smokers. This is not a vaccine just for girls.
JM September 28, 2011 at 08:26 PM
But still, I assume in all your research you found NO mention of Gardasil causing mental retardation?????
CTPati September 28, 2011 at 10:04 PM
JM, is your concern really getting all of the FACTS out there, so parents make *informed* choices themselves? Or is your motivation to score political points against conservative Republicans? It seems to me like your motivation is the latter.
JM September 28, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Honestly, I think it's fair that you thought so, but this really isn't anything to do with political party. It's a feeling of outrage, period, against anyone with access to a podium who would use blatant lies and fear mongering in an attempt to manipulate people. If I wanted to score cheap points against conservative Republicans, I suppose my "angle" would've been something more along the lines of how can Perry pass himself off as a conservative when he supported such a large scale example of governmental "intrusion." I'm a bit torn about mandating such a vaccine, but I respect that he appears to have been intervening on behalf of women's health.
CTPati September 29, 2011 at 03:59 AM
JM, two points: 1) I wonder if the reaction to Bachmann would have been so strong if she had not used the words "mental retardation" but instead something like "adverse mental and emotional side effects." Those and other bad reactions have been documented--also sadly recounted by a mother of a vaccinated daughter on another CT Patch (maybe Stamford?). 2) Gov. Perry, instead of putting the idea to the legislature for action, decided to unilaterally do an "executive order" to *mandate* something that a former lieutenant--who left to *lobby* for a drug company--asked for. In my view his friendship with the lobbyist superseded the principled judgment he should have exercised, considering *parental rights,* the fact that the vaccine was relatively untested on young girls and other factors--including the fact that nearly all women get HPV, which goes away without causing cancer. Did you also realize that the vaccine requires 3 separate injections, at a cost of about $400, and that the effects *only last* 4 or 5 yrs.?

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