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Sharp Jabs: The Politics of HPV Vaccines

on Sep 23, 2011 | Cervical cancer HPV Women's Health Adolescent health | 0 comments

Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines are back in the news, and this time for reasons not related to research results that show how effective the vaccines are in preventing HPV infections and related diseases.

Let’s start with the bottom line: HPV vaccines are safe, work amazingly well, and are a sparkling triumph for public health.  What a shame if unfounded fears and political grandstanding keeps even one young girl (or boy) from getting a vaccine that can protect them from perhaps the most common of all sexually transmitted infections. We owe them better.

Intrigued?  Our story begins in 2006 with the release of the first of two HPV vaccines now on the market. The vaccines are wildly effective in preventing infection with the HPV types they cover, and the safety profile is excellent. (Read that line again. Now read it one more time). As is often the case, though, science gets caught up in political whirlwinds. Attempts to require the vaccines for school-aged girls (the vaccines are most effective when given before people become sexually active and get exposed to HPV) were met with push-back from those who said such decisions should be made by parents. And then you have the anti-vaccine lobby which claims – with “evidence” so weak it makes UFO conspiracy theorists look rational – that immunizations cause everything from autism to the heebie-geebies.

This topic emerged in a recent Republican presidential debate when Rep. Michelle Bachmann launched a well-calculated political gut shot at Texas Gov. Rick Perry for once using an executive order to mandate HPV vaccination for girls in his state. She then followed with a real doozy of a zinger,  making reference to a mother with a mentally handicapped daughter who approached Rep. Bachmann to claim the daughter’s condition was caused by an HPV vaccine. Uh, no it wasn’t, but a tearful mom and an ill child make a compelling image, one that can be irresistible to a politician trying to take down a front runner.

This kind of talk isn’t found only with HPV vaccines, of course, and the sad thing is we spend so much time and energy in debunking false safety claims when in fact not one case of a serious side effect has EVER been connected with an HPV vaccine. Nada. Now the fear is that misinformation from a prominent elected official will make it much harder to vaccinate kids against a virus they’re all but certain to contract at some point in their lives. We’re struggling to get “needles in the arm” with HPV vaccines anyway, and now this…sign me “frustrated.”

Rep. Bachmann is admirable in many ways, to be sure. In addition to raising five children of their own, she and her husband have been foster parents to 23 others, giving her serious and well-earned “mom” bona fides. How ironic and disappointing that someone who has shown such compassion to so many kids would politicize and potentially damage efforts to protect millions of them against HPV.

~Fred Wyand

aka Fredo on the ASHA Message Boards



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