The HPV Wars: Perry Sells Out but Bachmann Spreads Misinformation

So as I reported yesterday, Governor Rick Perry seems willing to sell out women’s health and just about anything else for some campaign contributions.  My article suggested that his decision to break with his conservative, anti-choice, anti-sexuality education base and mandate that girls entering the sixth grade in Texas be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) had more to do with donations from and connections to the vaccine’s manufacturer than it did with a genuine interest in protecting women’s health.  And I gave numerous other examples of policies and programs (from prison health to radioactive waste), not to mention political appointments, where Perry seems to be for sale to the highest bidder. I thought there was a lot of fodder here for going after the governor on shady practices and a lack of conviction behind his beliefs.

In the most recent Republican debate, his opponents, most notably Michele Bachmann, did go after him for the HPV mandate suggesting that Perry was bought off by the drug company and was not really “erring on the side of life.”  But instead of using this as an issue that could shed light on his character and his business practices, they focused on the HPV vaccine itself and invoked old messages of fear and shame by stringing together words like little girls, inoculations, drug company profits, and sexual diseases. And if these insinuations of the vaccine as an evil, money-making, innocence-destroying scheme weren’t enough, Bachmann followed up the debate with interviews in which she said it was dangerous and caused mental retardation. 

Wow.  I think it’s time we take a step back from politics and remember what we are talking about: a vaccine that can prevent cancer.  That’s right cancer.  For the first time ever, there is a vaccine that can prevent our children from getting cancer, and instead of jumping up and down, singing hallelujah, and praising science, these politicians are trying to make it sound like a bad thing.   

None of this is new.  The abstinence-until-marriage zealots started making these arguments years before the vaccine was even on the market.  They said it would give kids license to have sex and lead to rampant promiscuity.  When public health experts suggested the vaccine be given to girls at age 11, these zealots began to argue that it would take away their innocence and force parents to explain sex at far too early an age.  And when none of that worked, they said it hadn’t been tested well enough, screamed about side effects, and warned parents that it was dangerous.   

I know that fighting propaganda with information is rarely effective – Michele Bachmann, for one, doesn’t seem to care about truth.  But just in case some of those people who were considering voting for her do, I am going to take a stab at diffusing her arguments with facts. 

Before I do, I want to remind everyone about HPV.  Human papillomavirus is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the United States.  It is estimated that 20 million Americans have HPV and that 6 million become infected each year.  HPV is easily spread from infected skin to uninfected skin.  Transmission can be prevented by condoms, however, the infected skin can be in areas that are not covered by the condom, such as on a man’s scrotum.  In truth, most people who have HPV will have no symptoms or adverse health effects and may never even know they had it.  Some people, however, will get genital warts, which may go away on their own or may need to be removed by a health care provider.  Certain strains of the virus, if left untreated, can lead to cervical cancer.

Okay, that said let’s look at the arguments against the vaccine.

It will lead to promiscuity.  Let’s face it the same people say this about every advance in women’s reproductive health education and care.  We’ve heard these arguments about sex education for example: “if you teach them about sex it’s like giving them license to have it.” Research has shown that this isn’t true; sex education does not cause young people to have sex sooner, to have more sex, or to have more partners.  In fact, young people who have gone through comprehensive sexuality programs that teach about both abstinence and contraception are more likely to delay sex, have fewer partners, and use contraception when they do become sexually active.  Same thing with making condoms available to young people; research found that students in schools where condoms were available were not more likely to have sex but were more likely to use condoms.  Need I go on? 

Depriving young people of lifesaving information and healthcare services because of these warped (and consistently disproved) ideas about promiscuity is nothing short of unconscionable.  

It will rob young girls of their innocence.  When the promiscuity argument failed to turn parents against the vaccine, zealots turned to this one spurred on by the young age at which the vaccine is recommended.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the vaccine be given at 11 or 12, not because they expect young women to be exposed to HPV at these ages but because they need to ensure that the vaccine (all three shots in the series) be given before any possible exposure otherwise it won’t work.  I understand that parents can be uncomfortable when it comes to their kids and sex but we have to fight that discomfort for the sake of their health.  The average age of first intercourse in this country is about 16 but obviously some young people have sex earlier than that and it’s really important that all of them get the vaccine before they become sexually active. 

Part of this innocence argument has been directed at the conversation parents will be “forced” to have with their kids about sex when they get the shot.  Opponents have said that the 11- and 12-year-olds are too young to talk about sex and STDs.  The sex educator in me would argue that they are not at all too young to hear this information and that the vaccine would be a good “teachable” moment to talk about the risks of sexual behavior and the various ways (abstinence, vaccines, condoms, etc.) to prevent such consequences.  But if parents aren’t comfortable doing that – that’s okay.  Children don’t require detailed explanations of the shots they’re getting – I didn’t tell my daughter what Rubella was when she got her MMR, for example – they can just be told that it’s all part of keeping them healthy.

It’s dangerous.  This is the worst one because it is the most likely to be believed by parents of all ideologies. There is an unfortunate skepticism of vaccines in this country started by research connecting them to autism which was recently found to be completely fabricated.  And yet, it is still believed.  So when Michele Bachmann goes on national television and says that some woman told her that the HPV vaccine caused her daughter’s mental retardation, some people probably believe her despite the fact that it even sounds ridiculous (the HPV vaccine is given at 11, long after developmental delays would have begun and been noticed).  

Research has shown that the HPV vaccine is very safe.  The most common reaction is a sore arm.  In response to Bachmann’s remarks the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement yesterday saying in part:  “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.”

Even some members of her own party have said that Bachmann took this one too far by repeating the claims about mental retardation. Rush Limbaugh suggested that she “might have jumped the shark,” and Erik Erikson of the RedState wrote “Michele Bachmann is overplaying her hand on this issue and it is probably going to go away.”

I suppose there is some good news in all of this. The nation is talking about HPV.  All of the morning news shows did a segment on the exchange between Bachmann and Perry over the vaccine, it’s been reported on by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, and it’s all over the blogosphere. Many of these news outlets have done a good job putting the politics aside and getting out the facts about HPV, other STDs, and the vaccine.   

Still, I find the whole incident depressing.  I can’t decide which is worse; a president that sells out women’s health for money or one that spreads misinformation for political gain. 

Worse than both of those might just be the fact that in the midst of two wars, record unemployment, increasing poverty, and a globally bad economy, the people who want to run this country think that scaring parents about teens and sex is the best use of their time (and ours).  

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  • pumpkinpjays

    I especially appreciate how you addressed the “it will rob their innocence” argument.  It completely irked me how Michele Bachmann repeatedly referred to 11 and 12-year-olds as “little girls”.  They are not;  they’re nearly teenagers.  Many of them are menstruating, so I would think (hope!) they have some rudimentary understanding of reproductive biology.  They’ve all heard the word “sex,” especially in our slutty-abstinent society.  Anybody who thinks otherwise is living in complete denial.


    Did anybody else catch her “morning-after-abortion-pill” statement, in her argument against health insurance companies covering contraception?  FAIL.  There’s emergency contraception, and an abortion pill, and they work completely differently.  She’ll never run out of lies and medically-inaccurate information to promote her agenda.


    It boggles the mind how this woman is a frontrunner of a major political party.  Her knowledge of science would fit on a postage stamp.



  • katie-stack

    Both Bachmann and Perry must  not know any teenagers. My mother made me get the Gardisil vaccine in college, and I wish I would have recieved it earlier. When I was a senior is high school one of my best friends got HPV- the first time she had sex!

    My 16 year old brother was just vaccinated recently too..

    The bottom line is that teenagers are going to have sex, whether they’re protected (from pregnancy or disease) or not. And chances are they aren’t going to go running off to tell their parents right away.

    What’s wrong with precaution?


  • lionmoma

    While I’m not a fan of Bachmann or Perry, I have reservations about the HPV vaccine and believe it needs more research.  From what I’ve read, it causes more harm than people realize as its negative factors aren’t published.  For what I feel is the truth on the vaccine I read articles by Drs. Mercola, Douglas,Sears and feel people should apply more caution before jumping in to do whatever the government says will protect you.

  • crowepps

    He covered her remarks about HPV and the ‘woman came up to me’ story and then said:

    “Bachmann is spreading an all-out falsehood here.  A dangerous falsehood at that. And it is not the first time she’s done this by any stretch of the imagination.”

    Then a little medley of her most grotesque distortions, and:

    “Have the false statements caught up with her?  Do voters care about the truth?” Cooper asked.

  • prochoiceferret

    From what I’ve read, it causes more harm than people realize as its negative factors aren’t published.


    What “negative factors” are directly linked with Gardasil/Cervarix that don’t occur with other vaccines?


    For what I feel is the truth on the vaccine I read articles by Drs. Mercola, Douglas,Sears


    Would you be referring to Dr. Joseph Mercola, who writes

    Yet, despite its annual sales of $1 billion, Gardasil has not become the blockbuster drug that Merck hoped it would be. Fortunately, people are wising up; aside from the moral issue of whether or not the vaccine encourages promiscuity, the long-term effects of the drug are completely unknown, and the immediate side effects are turning out to be quite serious, even deadly.



    Some topical reading for you:

  • crowepps

    It isn’t any of Dr. Mercola’s business, when commenting on the physical safety of a vaccination, to be speculating about “the moral issue of whether or not the vaccine encourages promiscuity,”  particularly when what he’s talking about is actually “premarital sex”.  Promiscuity means indiscriminately having many sexual partners.  Most of the women who get HPV do NOT indiscriminately have many sexual partners and there is ZERO evidence having the vaccination causes girls to begin having sex earlier than they would otherwise.


    I am SO SICK AND TIRED of the right wing mixing their authority figures.  Being a medical doctor does not qualify Dr. Mercola to make pronouncements on other people’s morality.  Being a doctor of “natural medicine” with a website promoting unconventional vitamin products, and insisting he is “Exposing corporate, government and mass media hype that diverts you away from what is truly best for your health and often to a path that leads straight into an early grave” means he is, in my personal opinion, not even a good doctor.  Good doctors are not a crusade to make people suspicious of the health care system.

  • jodi-jacobson
  • jodi-jacobson
  • jodi-jacobson

    CDC has a clear explanation of the evidence on side-effects with Gardasil.  While I am not arguing one way or the other for people to use it–though my daughter will be vaccinated–there is no evidence of deaths directly related to Gardasil.  No medical technology in existence is 100 percent free of either possible side effects or adverse consequences across the population.  The critical issue, however, is to understand the risks in the contexts of risk-benefit analysis and also understand where adverse outcomes linked to the timing of a vaccine may have nothing to do with the vaccine.  We have a generally poor understanding in the United States of understanding relative risks.  The risks and outcomes of cervical cancer far outweigh the adverse outcomes of Gardasil, such as they are. 

    Here is the CDC discussion on this issue.


    Jodi Jacobson