The medical community issued swift criticism Tuesday after Rep. Michele Bachmann dragged the safety of the vaccine against the human papillomavirus (HPV) into the political spotlight, reigniting the controversy over the risks and necessity of vaccinating children.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation," the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. "There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."
In Monday night's Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., Bachmann, R-Minn., slammed Gov. Rick Perry for his 2007 executive order mandating that all sixth-grade Texas girls be required to get vaccinations against HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer. Bachmann claimed that Perry's mandate was a "government injection through executive order" and a "violation of a liberty interest." She also charged that Perry was motivated to order the vaccinations by campaign contributions from Merck, the maker of the HPV vaccine, Gardasil.
Perry said that the 2007 order was "a mistake," as he did earlier this year. But he also defended his decision, saying that it was an attempt to protect young women against cervical cancer.
"I am always going to err on the side of life," Perry said.
The Texas legislature voted to override Perry's order, and the law was never enacted.
Bachmann continued her discussion of HPV vaccines Tuesday morning in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, when she described an encounter with a Florida woman after Monday's debate.
"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," Bachmann said. "There is no second chance for these little girls if there is any dangerous consequences to their bodies."
Dr. William Schaffner, who directs prevention research at Vanderbilt University, said since the vaccine was approved in 2006, doctors have become even more assured of its safety for preteen and teenage girls and boys.
"We have much more information about it now, and there have been no sudden surprises of adverse effects," he said. "This is just an 'ouchy' vaccine. There are no other side effects to worry about."
Although most doctors agree that the vaccine is safe, many stop short of suggesting that vaccinations against HPV should be mandatory, as Perry's executive order would have required.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that doctors "strongly recommend" that all 11- or 12-year-old girls be vaccinated against HPV, which is the cause of almost all cases of cervical cancer. The vaccine is a series of three shots, and is approved for use in males and females from ages 9 to 26.
Dr. William Meadow, a pediatrician and medical ethicist at the University of Chicago, said a doctor's strong recommendation to vaccinate a child often is all the prodding that many parents need.
"Most pediatricians should and do recommend the HPV vaccine, and most parents of young women choose to have their child vaccinated," Meadow said. "What's the advantage of forcing someone to do it?"