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Wanted: A Fact Checker before Going Viral with a Virus

September 22, 2011

At last week’s GOP debate, Governor Perry was taken to task by other candidates for his policy of mandating the administration of the HPV Vaccine to young girls in Texas. Although his order allowed parents to opt out for reasons of conscience or parental rights, the Texas Legislature later overturned it. In the debate, the Governor acknowledged his mistake of “executive overreach”, saying if he had to do it over again, he would allow parents to opt in rather than out. Another candidate, former Senator Rick Santorum, accused the Governor of promoting “big government run amuck.”  No mention was made by either candidate that California mandates vaccination of all 6th grade girls. That said, then, the issue has more to do with politics than science.

The vaccine in question is Gardasil, which protects women and men against four types of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that together cause 75% of cervical cancer cases and 90% of genital warts cases. After hundreds of billions of dollars invested in cancer research at the National Institutes of Health since the Nixon Administration in the 1970s, Gardasil remains science’s only vaccine against a cancer. At present, some 35 million doses have been administered.

Candidate Bachmann followed up her criticism of Governor Perry by relaying a comment made to her by a woman after the debate. She told the candidate that it caused her daughter a mental retardation after she was immunized.

The candidate has a large campaign and Congressional staff. Any one of them in the rope line could have used a cell phone to call either the Congressional Research Service or the NIH to determine if there were any cases on record of mental retardation due to HPV—or any other vaccine, before the candidate reiterated such an unfounded story to the media.  Unfortunately, none did so, and the mental retardation story went out unchallenged by the candidate. More importantly, when the candidate raised the issue of “innocent little 12-year girls [being] forced to have a government injection”, some Conservatives later charged that this “would encourage them to become promiscuous”.

The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend the HPV vaccine for young girls.  Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH publicly stated on September 13 that its main side effect is fainting among some patients. Since parents usually accompany their young girls to this immunization, this is a minor problem. The tempest caused by the candidate can have serious side effects for young girls. Already, according to the CDC, the use of Gardasil has stagnated in comparison to other vaccines. Only 49% of teenage girls have received one of the three required shots.

When available, HPV is a standard vaccine for the Global Alliance Vaccine Initiative,  UNICEF, and the Global Health Initiative, all heavily supported by US foreign aid funds accompanied by an FDA approval.  There have been no reported cases of adverse side effects from its use.

There are few other more excruciatingly painful ways to pass out of this earth than death by 3rd stage cervical cancer. HPV is most effect when administered at an early age, thus producing the best immune response before a girl becomes sexually active. Its administration doesn’t make a young girl any more promiscuous than did her birth as a female.

In the debate, the candidate also raised the issue of campaign contributions from Gardasil’s manufacturer, Merck, to the Governor, commenting quite forcefully that its fiscal support must have been instrumental in his executive order. This is a charge that can be made against all politicians at the local, state, and federal level, with the exception of former Senator Russ Finegold (D. Wis.). He took a laudable and principled stand against all campaign contributions to his 2010 bid for re-election.  If corporate campaign contributions were illegal, then the entire Congress and Executive Branch of our government should have followed the Senator into retirement.

The candidates ill founded comments about HPV vaccine went viral at warp speed to a puzzled international community. If the candidates had employed the same technology used to make a reservation for a hotel room on the campaign trail and instead applied it to the NIH, they would have avoided a self-inflicted wound.  A single cell phone call would have immunized the candidates against the virus they so unknowingly set in motion.

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