Bachmann's assault on public health [The conversation]
Is upholding virtue more important than protecting women from a common STD that's proven to cause cervical cancer? Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann thinks so. More reasonable and researched opinionators disagree.
What Bachmann gets right
About the only thing that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gets right when she talks about the HPV vaccine is that she's not a scientist or a doctor. That lack of credentials, though, can't excuse the breathtaking ignorance that suffuses her comments about this critical health issue. Nor can it justify her demagoguery about a scientific advance that has the potential to protect thousands of women a year from contracting -- and perhaps dying from -- cancer.
Where she breaks with reality
As we've all learned, Bachmann's strong points are her passion and determination, while her weak ones include a rather free-floating relationship with reality. This week, she scored a Tea Party version of a home run when she laced into Rick Perry for trying to require girls in Texas public schools to be vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer. "I'm a mom, and I'm a mom of three children," she said, neglecting for what may have been the first time in the campaign to mention that she also fostered 23 others.
What's more dangerous: Unproven theory or cancer?
Bachmann claimed the vaccine against the cancer-causing human papillomavirus was a "very dangerous drug" that could lead to "mental retardation." But after a barrage of criticism from even some of her own adoring fans, Bachmann admitted that she may not have been qualified to make such a statement.
About 6 million Americans become infected with HPV each year and more than 4,000 women die of cervical cancer. Someone should explain to Bachmann the difference between fact and fiction.
No scientific evidence backs Rep. Michele Bachmann's second-hand story of HPV vaccine causing mental retardation. Our research reveals that 35 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, without a single reported case of mental retardation. A total of four cases of a disorder involving inflammation of the brain have been reported, but a panel of scientists found there was insufficient evidence to establish that the vaccine caused those.
For Bachmann, virtue trumps public health
Ordinarily, government-ordered vaccination aims at public health threats that are spread through casual contact; HPV, which usually has no symptoms but can lead to cancer, is spread via sex. That makes mandated vaccination particularly irksome for social conservatives, who think the government is encouraging promiscuity by making premarital sex safer. This is such a skewed idea of the reasons teens have sex that we wonder how those holding such views could possibly ever have been teens themselves. According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV vaccination "has the potential to reduce cervical cancer deaths around the world by as much as two-thirds." Bachmann and her ilk appear less concerned with saving girls' lives than with protecting their virtue.
But preaching chastity only goes so far...
Parents are entitled to preach, demand, and enforce chastity for their children. But if a child spurns that option, the penalty should not be a deadly, avoidable disease. Besides, even abstinent youngsters can be infected -- through sexual assault.
...ditto the Pap test, which doesn't prevent cancer
The Pap test is unsurpassed when it comes to early detection of cancer, which has led some vaccine critics to argue that it's all that's needed to prevent cervical cancer. There are two problems with that argument. The most obvious is that the Pap test does not prevent cancer; at best, it detects malignant and pre-malignant cells before they become life-threatening. Treating the malignancy can require surgery. The other problem is that not every woman has a Pap test as often as she should -- which is why there are some 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. every year. That is reason enough to let the vaccine prove its merits rather than inciting a backlash by requiring anyone to get it.
Does this mean it's game over for Bachmann?
"I liked Michele Bachmann. A lot," says Lori Ziganto at RedState. That ends now. I don't care if she's "actually cuckoo pants or if she's just lying and using children and the fears of their parents to score political points," but this "tall tale" about a 12-year-old absurdly "catching" mental retardation -- something you're born with -- tells me all I need to know: Bachmann's "not very bright" and she's a "Jenny McCarthyist." Let's not forget: "Vaccinations save lives."
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann. Credit: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press