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?"
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."