Currently, only Virginia and Washington D.C. have laws mandating HPV vaccinations as a requirement for attending school, although 24 other states have introduced legislation to mandate the vaccine since 2007. Most states require that children be vaccinated for a host of other diseases, such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough. Dr. Lauren Steicher, a gynecologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, suggested that parents and politicians may be more uncomfortable with the thought of vaccinating children against HPV than other diseases because of the virus' status as a sexually transmitted disease.
"There's a premise that there's no need for an HPV vaccine for a 12-year-old, because it brings up all these uncomfortable ideas about kids having sex," Streicher said. "But you don't have to discuss this with your kid, you don't have to give them permission to have sex. All you have to tell them is that it's a vaccine that will keep them healthy."
HPV vaccinations do not entirely eliminate a woman's risk of cervical cancer. Merck, the maker of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, said the vaccine does not eliminate the need for women to get regular recommended cervical cancer screenings. The vaccine protects against four common types of the HPV virus; according to the CDC, there are more than 40 strains of HPV that can affect men and women.
But many doctors said they believe the vaccine is the best hope so far in the fight against cervical cancer, and they hope that public exchanges like the one between Bachmann and Perry won't discourage people from vaccinating their children against HPV.
"With early vaccination and regular screening, we can prevent cervical cancer," said Dr. Mark Einstein, director of gynecologic oncology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "Whether you are Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, the science behind these vaccines is indisputable."