It's one thing to have a philosophical disagreement with the Texas governor on whether he should have mandated a vaccine for girls against a sexually transmitted virus. But it's an entirely different matter to spread false rumors about the vaccine, hoping to leverage parental fears for political gain. That's the depths to which Minnesota's Michele Bachmann has sunk in her bid to counter Rick Perry's surge in polls. It's conduct unbecoming a member of Congress, much less a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Bachmann used the issue last week at the CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa to land her most memorable jab at Perry. "I'm offended for all the little girls and the parents who didn't have a choice," she said, referencing Perry's 2007 executive order requiring sixth-grade girls to receive the three-shot vaccine against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, that can lead to cervical cancer.
Whether Texas and other states should require the vaccine has been the subject of much note in political and medical circles. That's in part because the push for the mandates was partially funded by Merck, maker of one version of the vaccine, Gardasil. An effort to require the vaccine in Florida died in the 2007 legislative session. And Bachmann could suggest Perry ignored the conservative mantra of less government or sought to please a campaign contributor. The Texas legislature, citing similar criticisms, ultimately repealed Perry's order.
But where Bachmann crossed the line came Tuesday on NBC's Today show when she claimed the vaccine "can have very dangerous side effects." She said a woman approached her after Monday's debate and claimed her daughter had suffered "mental retardation" after receiving the vaccine. Bachmann echoed other irresponsible claims — repeatedly debunked by scientists — that other childhood vaccines can cause autism.
The American Academy of Pediatrics' reaction was swift: "There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement." And a safety review on the HPV vaccine by the Federal Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2009 found that the potential side effects most often reported by vaccine recipients — such as fainting, blood clots, injection site itching and even the rare advent of Guillain-Barré syndrome — occurred at a rate no greater than what would be expected in the general population with the same known contributing factors.
In other words, government scientists on no drug company payrolls pored over mountains of data and confirmed the vaccine was safe and that its benefits far outweighed its risks. Those are the facts. Now voters can decide whether to support a presidential candidate who ignores the truth.