Experts: Bachmann’s False HPV Comments Could Do Real Damage To Public Health

Presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has been on the defensive ever since suggesting last week that the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer, may cause mental retardation. Her completely bogus charge was immediately debunked by public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But the New York Times reports today that far-reaching damage to public health may already have been done. Experts are predicting that Bachmann’s comments may set vaccination rates back for three or four years and instill unfounded fears in parents who would otherwise have their children vaccinated:

But the harm to public health may have already been done. When politicians or celebrities raise alarms about vaccines, even false alarms, vaccination rates drop.

These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford,” said Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a member of the committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy favors use of the vaccine, as do other medical groups and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vaccine, recommended by the medical groups for 11- and 12-year-olds, protects against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cancer. Use of the vaccine was disturbingly low even before the Bachmann flap, health officials say.

Dr. Willoughby went on to say that historically, these types of false scares have caused vaccination rates to drop for three or four years, and have led to outbreaks of diseases that had previously been under control, like measles and whooping cough.

But setting back HPV vaccination rates is particularly dangerous because “there will be no symptoms to scare parents back into vaccinating their daughters until it is too late.” Willoughbay said that with cervical cancer, “unfortunately, the outbreak is silent and will take 20 years to manifest.”

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in America — millions of new infections occur each year, and researchers believe at least half of all adults have been infected at some point in their lives. Yet vaccination rates are lagging far behind where they should be. Bachmann’s remarks essentially gave ammunition to parents who were already on the fence about the vaccine, worried that it somehow implies that they are accepting or condoning their daughters into having sex.

Gov. Rick Perry and even conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh have criticized Bachmann for spreading dangerous misinformation about the vaccination. Perry compared her rumor-mongering to conspiracy theories that vaccines could cause autism.