HPV vaccine returns to spot of controversy in GOP primaries

Image from http://www.politico.com.

When the HPV vaccine became available in 2006, it was met with both enthusiasm and concerns. (In fact, I reported its arrival, and opposition, on our religiously affiliated college campus). Those concerns were brought back to the front page news cycle this week as the Republican candidates for president have questioned the vaccine’s safety and Gov. Rick Perry’s policies in Texas schools.

Approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV in the United States. As many as half of these infections are among adolescents and young adults, ages 15 through 24 years of age, according to the CDC. Most HPV infections are asymptomatic, but four of the 40 types of the STD cause cervical cancer, which kills 4,000 women in the U.S. each year. Other types can cause genital warts in both males and females. More than 35 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the United States as of June 2011.

The topic was first brought up in the September 7 debate, the first in which Perry participated since announcing his candidacy. At that time, he defended his 2007 mandate of the vaccine for 11 and 12 year old girls in Texas schools, saying he would “always err on the side of saving lives.” Other candidates said he should have let parents opt in to the vaccine, rather than opt out of the mandate. Other candidates, and conservatives, have said the vaccine encourages promiscuity. In May 2007, the Texas legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill vacating the governor’s executive order by a veto-proof margin. Perry, however, still supported the executive order in his 2010 re-election bid for the governor’s office. Currently, Virginia and the District of Columbia require the vaccine for girls entering the sixth grade. Both jurisdictions offer liberal opt-out policies that allow parents to decline to have their daughters vaccinated. (As of April 2011, only 22 percent of sixth-grade girls in D.C. public schools were in the midst of or had completed the vaccinations; Virginia has also tried to repeal the mandate.)

In Monday’s debate, Perry was again criticized for his support of the mandate, and by the end of the week he had reversed his position, telling a GOP event in Virginia that “We should have had an opt-in instead of an opt-out.”

But the bigger story became one of Rep. Michele Bachmann’s attacks on Perry, telling him she had met a mother whose daughter became mentally retarded after receiving the vaccination. She also accused the governor of “crony capitalism” and receiving financial incentives from Merck, the drug company that produces the Guardasil vaccine. (GlaxoSmithKline also produced an HPV vaccine, Cervarix, but this variety only protects against two types of HPV; Guardasil protects against four and is usually the variety in question during debates over the vaccine). Sarah Palin, in what was seen by some as her first attack on Perry, supported Bachmann’s statements in a Fox appearance the next day. Many, including Perry, questioned the factual basis of Bachmann’s statement. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson: “It is possible that Rick Perry encouraged HPV vaccinations in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. But it is Bachmann, not Perry, who would put girls and women at greater health risk based on moral confusion and public health illiteracy.” Bachmann’s former campaign manager said she’d “goofed,” as described by the Christian Science Monitor.

No research at this time shows a connection between the HPV vaccination and mental retardation. One bioethicist went as far as to challenge Bachmann’s statement by offering to donate $10,000 to charity if she can prove and verify a single case. Published side effects of Guardasil are similar to other vaccinations, including pain, swelling, itching, bruising, and redness at the injection site, headache, fever, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and fainting. Gardasil works against HPV types 6, 11, 16 and 18. These four types cause 90 percent of genital warts and types 16 and 18 cause 70 percent of cervical cancer, according to the CDC.

The vaccine is administered in three doses and is recommended by the CDC to start in girls around 11 or 12 because it is most effective when administered before a girl becomes sexually active; the vaccine is approved for women up to 26 years old.

Here are some resources to learn more about HPV and the vaccine:

  • Centers for Disease Control: fact sheets, FAQs, research studies, statistics, and more.
  • Guardasil: site for the vaccination includes parent information, side effect information, and funding assistance programs.

This is the Gender Report’s Week in Review, a weekly post that highlights some of the major stories related to gender issues this week. Some of these stories may have already appeared in our News Feed or in the week’s Gender Checks. We’ll at times include a longer analysis of stories as well as bring attention to stories that may have slipped through the cracks of the week’s news cycle.


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