Michele Bachmann's repeated suggestions last week that the HPV vaccine might be some kind of evil "government injection" that makes little girls promiscuous and possibly "mentally retarded" may go down as one of the stupidest things ever uttered by a politician, and perhaps that's why she's totally backtracked on that statement — she was just repeating what she heard, she didn't mean it. Well, too late. Scientists say that the misinformation she's spread could set back use of the vaccine, even after Bachmann has dropped out of the race and become nothing more than a Trivial Pursuit answer (please, God).
As we saw in recent years when Jenny McCarthy popularized the incorrect belief that vaccines cause autism, when a celebrity rails against a vaccine, it can be very difficult for public health officials to correct the misconception. Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases, tells the New York Times, "These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can't afford."
When vaccination rates drop, diseases that were under control can reemerge, such as measles, which reached a 15-year high last spring. With most diseases, parents will start vaccinating again when they see the infection rate rise, but that won't be the case with HPV. Willoughby says, "unfortunately, the outbreak is silent and will take 20 years to manifest."
Rates of HPV vaccination were already troublingly low even before Bachmann weighed in on the matter. In a study released last month, the CDC found that last year slightly less than half of all girls have had the first shot of the HPV vaccine, and only one third have received all three doses.
Parents are far more likely to get their daughters two other vaccines that came out around the same time, one for meningitis and another for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough, which seems to confirm that the fears about the HPV vaccine are mainly about sex. Willoughby suggests that parents are particularly hesitant about getting their preteens vaccinated because they're just beginning to worry that they'll start having sex soon. He proposes administering the shot at a much younger age to deemphasize the link between the vaccine and sexual activity. He explains:
"There's probably no reason why it should be 11 or 12, as opposed to 5 or 6 or even birth ... If it were being given in kindergarten, I don't think would be an adherence problem."
Unfortunately many parents already see the innoculation as a license to screw, and the ridiculous claims from Bachmann and the other candidates only solidified this idea. The Republican Party giving anti-science, anti-fact politicians a national platform is already hurting the country, even if they don't make it to the White House.
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