The HPV virus has been shown to cause cervical cancer, and factually incorrect statements about its effectiveness is raising blood pressures. Image: Flickr / euthman / CC-BY-SA

The Republican candidate debate on Sept. 12 raised many questions about potential presidential candidates. Michelle Bachmann’s statements about the HPV vaccine have raised the ire of medical professionals and public-health advocates alike. Now, one bioethicist has put down a $10,000 bet that Bachmann’s statements cannot be proved.

Bachmann’s HPV statements

In a heated exchange during the Republican candidate debate, Michelle Bachmann made the statement that the HPV vaccine was not necessarily effective. She called Texas Governor Rick Perry’s attempt to require the HPV vaccine for school-aged Texas girls an act of “political cronyism.” The decision was never implemented because the Texas legislature overturned the executive order. After the debate, Bachmann claimed the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation in a young girl.

Public health officials’ take on vaccine

The HPV vaccine is, thus far, the only proven way to reduce the incidence of cervical cancer in women. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a statement about Bachmann’s debate, stating:

Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend that girls receive HPV vaccine around age 11 or 12. That’s because this is the age at which the vaccine produces the best immune response in the body, and because it’s important to protect girls well before the onset of sexual activity. In the U.S., about 6 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year, and 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. This is a life-saving vaccine that can protect girls from cervical cancer.

In short, the HPV vaccine is the only known preventative measure that can be taken against cervical cancer, and the injection has a strong safety record.

The bioethicist’s bet

Arthur Caplan is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. Caplan announced on Twitter that he was willing to pony up $10,000 to a charity of Bachmann’s choice if Bachmann could produce the girl that she claimed “suffered mental retardation” as a result of the HPV vaccine and the claim could be medically proven. If Bachmann could not do so, then she would be responsible for paying $10,000 to a pro-vaccine group. Bachmann has not yet responded to the bet.

Aftermath of Bachmann’s statements

Even if Bachmann’s claim of the HPV vaccine being dangerous is never proven, much of the damage is already done. Rick Perry tried to mandate the HPV vaccine because vaccination rates were low. Statements by authority figures do carry a significant amount of weight in the public, even if they are not supported by medical evidence. Personal, compelling stories often make a bigger impact than impersonal statistics, but they are just as often incorrect.


NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/09/13/140445104/pediatricians-fact-check-bachmanns-bashing-of-hpv-vaccine?ps=cprs
NY Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2011/09/15/2011-09-15_michele_bachmanns_hpv_hogwash_her_comments_on_perrys_gardasil_mandate_are_irresp.html
Business Week: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-09-15/bioethicist-bets-bachmann-10-000-on-hpv-vaccine-link-to-damage.html

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