Monday, September 19, 2011

Michele Bachmann's comments about HPV vaccination will lead to more cervical cancer.

That's the implication of this New York Times article:

During a debate last week for Republican presidential candidates and in interviews after it, Representative Michele Bachmann called the vaccine to prevent cervical cancer “dangerous.” Medical experts fired back quickly. Her statements were false, they said, emphasizing that the vaccine is safe and can save lives. Mrs. Bachmann was soon on the defensive, acknowledging that she was not a doctor or a scientist.

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 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. That is partly because of the recent climate of fear about vaccines in general, and partly because some parents feel that giving the vaccine somehow implies that they are accepting or even condoning the idea that their young daughters will soon start having sex.

Allegations that vaccines could cause autism have frightened some parents away from giving them to children. But the question has been studied repeatedly, and there is no evidence for such a link; the research that first promoted the idea was subsequently proved fraudulent.

Indeed, a report published last month by the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, found that the HPV vaccine was safe.

It did find “strong and generally suggestive” — though not conclusive — evidence that the vaccine could cause severe allergic reactions. But such reactions have been rare.

Historically, Dr. Willoughby said, vaccine 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. Measles cases in the United States reached a 15-year high last spring, with more than 100 cases, most in people who had never been vaccinated.

Once the disease begins to reappear, parents become worried and start vaccinating again. With cervical cancer, Dr. Willoughby said, “unfortunately, the outbreak is silent and will take 20 years to manifest.”
The Times is actually understating Bachmann's scare tactics. She has repeatedly told about a mother who came up to her after the last debate, and tearfully described how her daughter got the vaccination and then became mentally retarded. She describes it in the last 30 seconds of this video:

Notice that she doesn't say there's any empirical evidence suggesting that the vaccine might cause retardation. She just says the daughter got vaccinated and then became mentally retarded — and that people should "draw their own conclusions." Presumably, she doesn't explicitly say there's any causation because she realizes that this would be a classic "post hoc" fallacy. But she knows what conclusion some people are going to draw.


chickelit said...

The NYT was hoping for a reason to eliminate Bachmann and she just may have done herself in with this.

Of course some probably hope this tars Palin too- what with her support of Bachmann's rail against crony capitalism. But if the logic sticks -- that opponents of the vaccine are guilty of causing future cancer deaths, shouldn't they be going after Perry as well? After all, by not vetoing the TX legislature's undoing of his mandate, didn't he fail to protect some innocent lives? Perhaps the NYT is has thought this through better than I have.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Perry's caving under political pressure isn't the same as Bachmann's trying to make a big campaign issue out of how terrible his policy was. The question isn't just what the consequences of a certain policy or statement might be, but what the candidates' actions and statements say about how they would govern the country.