Earlier today, I noted that Michele Bachmann finally scored points on Rick Perry by hitting him on his ties to Merck and linking that to the Gardasil mandate Perry imposed through executive order in Texas. This is a fair point on Perry’s record, even given his apology for pursuing the mandate through EO instead of through the legislature, and it’s not surprising that Bachmann was the candidate to first take advantage of the opening. (Mitt Romney passed a mandate on health insurance for all citizens of Massachusetts, which pretty much puts this issue out of reach for him.) However, Bachmann took a winning argument about the method and the wisdom of mandating a vaccination for a limited-spread virus and turned it into an anti-vaccination argument, especially in this post-debate argument on Fox with Greta van Susteren (via The Right Scoop):
There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.
Huh? “Mental retardation” typically takes place in a pre- or neo-natal event. Autism becomes apparent in the first couple of years of life — and primarily affects boys. Gardasil vaccinations take place among girls between 9-12 years of age. Even assuming that this anecdote is arguably true, it wouldn’t be either “mental retardation” or autism, but brain damage.
The FDA has received no reports of brain damage as a result of HPV vaccines Gardasil and Cervarix. Among the reports that correlate seriously adverse reactions to either, the FDA lists blood clots, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and 68 deaths during the entire run of the drugs. The FDA found no causal connection to any of these serious adverse events and found plenty of contributing factors to all — and all of the events are exceedingly rare.
The “mental retardation” argument is a rehash of the thoroughly discredited notion that vaccines containing thimerasol caused a rapid increase in diagnosed autism cases. That started with a badly-botched report in Lancet that allowed one researcher to manipulate a ridiculously small sample of twelve cases in order to reach far-sweeping conclusions about thimerasol. That preservative hasn’t been included in vaccines for years, at least not in the US, and the rate of autism diagnoses remain unchanged.
The most charitable analysis that can be offered in this case for Bachmann is that she got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television. It looks more like Bachmann sensed that she had won a point and wanted to go in for the kill, didn’t bother to check the facts, and didn’t care that she was stoking an anti-vaccination paranoid conspiracy theory, either. Neither shines a particularly favorable light on Bachmann.
Rick Santorum took the correct position on the Gardasil issue. We mandate certain vaccines in children because we mandate children be gathered for educational purposes for many years (in private or public schools), and certain diseases are easily communicable in those settings. By mandating vaccinations against whooping cough, measles, and mumps, we are protecting children who would otherwise get exposed without any action on their part except compliance with the law. That’s not true with HPV, and parents should decide for themselves whether to inoculate their sons and daughters with Gardasil or Cervarix. If Perry wanted to make those inoculations more accessible, he could have crafted an opt-in system rather than forcing parents to opt out.
Update: Politico’s Ben Smith notes that Bachmann’s statement is getting some pushback in the health sector:
The alleged link between vaccination and mental disabilities — autism is the one frequently cited — has been repeatedly debunked, with the key research on the issue in a British journal withdrawn years ago. But the theory has lived on, and contributed to declining vaccine rates and — advocates for autistic children say — scientific distraction.
“Congresswoman Bachmann’s decision to spread fear of vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible,” said Evan Siegfried, a spokesman for the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership. “There is zero credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause mental retardation or autism. She should cease trying to foment fear in order to advance her political agenda.”
“Irresponsible” is correct, and a bad tactical error, too. Instead of highlighting Perry’s faulty actions in Texas, she made herself and (at best) her ignorance on the matter the story.