If you are keeping up with the latest political news you may have heard about the war of words between Republican Presidential hopefuls, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. At the center of their debate is a vaccine designed to protect young girls and women from the human papillomavirus or HPV. Bachmann attacked Texas Governor Rick Perry during a recent debate for his 2007 executive order requiring all sixth grade girls in Texas to receive the HPV vaccine unless their parents opted out. Although the order was rejected by the state legislature, Perry has received much flack for his attempt to make the vaccine mandatory. Michelle Bachmann went so far as to declare the vaccine a very dangerous drug possibly causing mental retardation. This declaration came from a personal story that a mother told Bachmann after a debate, not from any scientific proof or research study.
The human papillomavirus can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. It is reported that approximately six million people in the U.S. become infected with HPV and that as many as 4000 women die of cervical cancer each year. The HPV vaccine, Gardasil, marketed by Merck, is reported to be effective in defending against two strains of the HPV virus which are suspected to cause as many as 70% of cervical cancers. The vaccine is mainly targeted for young girls as the vaccine is reported to be most effective for those who have not had exposure to the HPV virus.
According to the official Gardasil website, girls as young as nine can receive the vaccine. In 2009 we reported that Merck was also marketing Gardasil for boys and young men (ages 9-26) to help prevent genital warts.
One of the other accusations Michelle Bachmann made during these political debates is that Rick Perry was motivated to mandate young girls receive the HPV vaccine due to monetary compensation from the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck. Although Perry responded that he only received a $5,000 contribution from Merck, investigation into the matter proves otherwise. The Washington Post published an article on how Rick Perry and Merck have deep financial ties. According to news reports campaign disclosure revealed that Perry had received almost $30,000 from Merck since 2000. In addition the drug maker has given more than $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) since 2006. Perry began his role in this group in this same year and eventually served as a chairman of RGA.
Perry denies that financial incentive was his motivation for his mandate to vaccinate young girls. Perry defended the policy by saying that "At the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life.”
Critics from his own party believe that Perry’s vaccine mandate is an example of big government intruding into personal liberties. The religious right worries that the vaccine may cause sexual promiscuity among young girls. Other critics say that the vaccine has not been proven to be any more effective in reducing cervical cancer than regular screenings. In a recent article published in The Guardian Diane Harper, a Professor of Medicine at the University of Missouri in Kansas City who led clinical trials for both Gardasil and its drug competitor Cevarix, is quoted as saying:
"The very best you could achieve with Gardasil alone would be 14 cases per 100,000 women. So in an overall population, Gardasil is never going to prevent more cervical cancers than you are already preventing with a screening programme."
In addition, there are questions about the long term efficacy of the vaccine. Girls and women need three doses of the vaccine for it to be the most effective. Some girls and young women are not getting their second and third required doses. And so far, studies show that recipients are only protected for five years. Others have concerns over the side effects of Gardasil which can range from mild (headache, fever, nausea, and fainting) to the very serious (sezures, paralysis, blood clots and Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurologic disorder that causes muscle weakness).
Despite these criticisms and concerns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the vaccine has been approved as both safe and effective and that more than 35 million doses of HPV vaccine have been distributed in the United States as of June, 2011. The vaccine is reported to protect against four types of HPV, including two that cause about 70% of cervical cancer. The CDC website states that the cost for the vaccine as of July 2011 was about $130 per dose ($390 for full series).
It is still uncertain as to whether Perry’s vaccine mandate of 2007 will affect his political career or if this will soon be a forgotten story. However a recent U.S. News and World Report poll showed that 78% of voters believe that Rick Perry was wrong in his mandate to vaccinate Texas girls against HPV.
Rick Perry is not the only politician to have to deal with the controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine. California Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has an October deadline on whether to sign a bill allowing children to get the HPV vaccine without their parent’s consent. The Washington Post reports that there are two vaccines available: Garadasil which is manufactured by Merck and Cervarix created by GlaxoSmithKline. If this legislation becomes law minors would also be able to receive other STD prevention treatments including one to prevent HIV without a parent’s consent. Organizations in favor of this bill include the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice California and the California Nurses Association as well as local California health entities.
We would like to hear from our readers on this topic. Do you believe that Rick Perry’s mandate to have young girls vaccinated with the HPV vaccine was appropriate? Do you have concerns over this vaccine? Have any of you had your daughter vaccinated with the three recommended doses of the HPV vaccine? Do any of you have fears or reservations about getting your daughter (or son) vaccinated against HPV? Tell us your thoughts and stories. We want to hear from you.
For more information about the HPV vaccine please refer to the following resources and articles:
• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) HPV Vaccine Information for Young Women-Fact Sheet