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Bachmann Comment Could Harm HPV Vaccine Take-Up

I’ve actually been pleased to see the pushback against Michele Bachmann for intimating that the Gardasil vaccine for human papilloma virus causes mental retardation. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a strong statement condemning Bachmann’s claim as “false.” A professor in Minnesota offered $1,000 for information leading to the whereabouts of the supposed victim of mental retardation from Gardasil. And now Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s former campaign manager, is raking her over the coals for the comment:

“Obviously she would have been better if she stayed on the issue, when issue was [Rick Perry’s] executive orders and whether he basically made a mistake, as he said he did,” Rollins told Chris Matthews Wednesday. “She made a mistake. The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on the better it is.”

Rollins chalked up Bachmann’s decision take what a member of the audience told her at Monday night’s debate in passing and turn it into a talking point to Bachmann being an “an emotional person who has great feeling for people.”“

He acknowledged “there’s no empirical data other than one individual woman coming up to her,” to back up the claim, which has drawn fire from Rush Limbaugh and others on the right as well as the medical establishment.

That’s right, even Rush Limbaugh wondered whether Bachmann jumped the shark on that one. Bachmann has even distanced herself from the notion, saying that she was only a messenger reporting what a mother told her.

But let’s be clear about this: the damage has been done, and it’s being done to women’s health. Keep in mind that Rick Perry is backtracking from mandating Gardasil, calling it a mistake. Bachmann may have reached too far, but the standard opinion on the right is that this life-saving vaccine is somehow wrong to administer. In 2007, when Perry mandated the vaccine for young girls in Texas, several dozen states were looking to do the same thing. Now only one state, Virginia, has a mandate. And the take-up rate has been dramatically lower in the United States relative to the rest of the world. Only 32% of all girls age 13-17 in the US have received the required doses of Gardasil to vaccinate them against HPV. And public health advocates are right to worry that the take-up rate will drop even lower now:

But doctors and scientists say that her remarks risk further reducing the already low take-up rates for the vaccine, as more parents will be convinced to reject the vaccine for their daughters.

Professor Gregory Zimet, co-leader of the cancer control programme at Indiana University, said of Bachmann’s comments: “People will say there’s no evidence for it and that is true, there is no evidence. But I would go further: Bachmann is absolutely wrong.”

He added: “Part of the issue will be how long the discussion is prominent in the news. If this is brought up every time the Republican candidates have a debate, if misinformation is repeatedly expressed and covered nationally, it can have a negative effect.”

The uptake of the vaccine has already suffered a major backlash in the US in response to what some critics viewed as an overly aggressive marketing strategy and anxiety from the religious right that the vaccine would promote sexual promiscuity among young girls.

This is the entire point. The mental retardation angle is a red herring. Theocons don’t believe women should have the choice of pre-marital sex, and they like the idea of cancer as a deterrent. So thousands of women – 4,000 die every year from cervical cancer – will be put at risk because it’s an appropriate punishment, to these people, for promiscuity. A life-saving vaccine has been turned into a political argument, at the expense of women.

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David Dayen

David Dayen