Michele Bachmann and anti-HPV vaccine unreason

Chris Carlson AP Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks during the California Republican Party Fall Convention dinner in … Continued

Chris Carlson


Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks during the California Republican Party Fall Convention dinner in Los Angeles, Friday, Sept. 16, 2011.

When Michele Bachmann publicly shared the story of a mother who believed that as a result of being immunized against the human papilloma virus (HPV), her 11-year-old daughter had contracted “mental retardation,” the media treated the incident as just one more example not only of Bachmann’s breathtaking ignorance but of the Christian right’s obsession with sex. That is a fair interpretation as far as it goes, but most political commentators missed the larger story. Bachmann’s airheaded campaign talk has the potential to cause real harm to public health because it melds perfectly with an overall anti-vaccination crusade that represents one of the most destructive examples of junk science in our time.

The anti-vaccine movement in the United States and the United Kingdom, which emerged swiftly in 1998, was based almost entirely on one paper by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who claimed in a study (of only 12 children), originally published in the English medical journal The Lancet, that inoculations against mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) were responsible for a rise in childhood autism cases.

Wakefield’s research has since been refuted by numerous studies and declared fraudulent by the British Medical Journal. He lost his British medical license for ethical violations such as failing to disclose that he had received financing from attorneys suing vaccine manufacturers. No matter. To heartbroken parents of autistic children, wanting someone or something held accountable for a terrible disease that is still a medical mystery, Wakefield (who now lives in Texas) is a hero and vaccines are the enemy.

In the United States, the anti-vaccination movement melds an odd combination of those who oppose any government requirements for anything (such as vaccinations to enter school) and those within the holistic health movement who distrust all conventional medicine.

“To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one,” J.P. Handley, co-founder of the anti-vaccine group Operation Rescue, told The New York Times. (The group is not related to the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.) Handley’s comment explicitly captures the quasi-religions nature of the anti-vaccine movement and its imperviousness to evidence.

The anti-vaccine crusaders are mainly sincere parents, looking for someone or something to hold responsible for autism, which, in its most severe form, renders their children unable to communicate in any normal fashion. I’ve heard from many such angry and anguished parents since, in my 2008 book
The Age of American Unreason,
I spoke of the anti-vaccine movement as the quintessential example of the way in which junk science preys on the failure of public education to teach Americans the difference between coincidence and causation. The suffering of these parents, however, does not make them right about vaccines.

The coincidence here is that the first MMR shots are administered at around 18 months, and this is precisely the age at which observant parents notice signs of autism. These include a withdrawal from ordinary interaction with parents; inability to communicate as normal toddlers do; and a halt to nearly all of the ordinary signs of childhood social development. There’s one big problem with attributing autism to the MMR shots: Repeated studies have shown that the rise in autism cases occurs equally among vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Thomas Insel, director of the the National Institute of Mental Health, says that while researchers are looking for a still-unknown combination of environmental and genetic factors, the MMR vaccine is one of the few factors that can be eliminated precisely because it has been studied so intensively since The Lancet (which has now retracted the article) published Wakefield’s shaky study.

This entire episode, by the way, vitiates the notion of some religious believers that science is “just another religion.” The self-correcting mechanism of science, in which the results of studies must be testable by peers and replicated in order to be accepted, does not exist in religion.. The anti-vaccine crusaders, who continue to believe that immunizations the villain in the face of powerful scientific evidence to the contrary, are the ones in the grip of blind faith.

The success of immunizations in eliminating once-fatal infectious diseases is one of the greatest medical achievements of the twentieth century, but such diseases can make a comeback when the percentage of immunized children drops below a certain point. Measles made a major return in the U.K. as a result of Wakefield’s now-discredited research (and especially after former Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to answer the question of whether his own children were vaccinated). There are frequent outbreaks of infectious diseases in religious communities, such as the Amish, whose faith prohibits vaccinations.

One of the nastier manifestations of the anti-vaccine movement in the United States has been the appearance of overnight mail-order “churches,” designed specifically for the purpose of allowing parents to claim a religious exemption from vaccination. The American practice of permitting parents to claim religious exemptions from

non-emergency medical procedures for their children is of course a byproduct of the First Amendment and does not exist in most European countries.

Bachmann’s comment, aimed at Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s executive order that all girls be vaccinated against HPV by age 12, must be viewed against this larger backdrop. In fact, Perry’s mandate is not actually a mandate, because it allows any parent to opt out of the HPV vaccination for any reason. Unless a parent objects, though, all girls in the state of Texas are supposed to be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted virus, which causes roughly 70 percent of cervical cancer cases. All public health measures are more effective when treated as routine matters unless an individual deliberately chooses to reject them. .

Bachmann, of course, is not only allied with those who generally object to all government programs but, as a right-wing evangelical Christian, she is sympathetic to those who regard the vaccine, like sex education in public schools, as some form of “permission” to have sex. (To be effective, the vaccine must be given before people become sexually active. Many scientists believe it should also be administered to boys, who can transmit a HPV without knowing they are infected.)

The idea that the HPV vaccine could cause someone to “contract” mental retardation is utter nonsense. Writing in The New York Daily News, Dr. Paul Offit, one of the foremost vaccine experts in the United States, points out that HPV doesn’t infect the brain at all in its virulent natural state, so it could hardly cause mental retardation in the attenuated form used to make vaccines.

Offit, the author of Autism’s False Prophets (2008), writes, “It is likely that some parents watching her, assuming that Bachmann was right, will choose not to give the HPV vaccine to their daughters, putting them at unnecessary risk.” It’s happened before. When an actress named Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah in 2007 and claimed that her child had developed autism because of receiving an MMR shot, the publicity, fueled by the powerful Oprah effect, frightened so many parents that a number of pediatricians had to install special phone lines to answer questions about routine vaccinations.

Conscientious pediatricians must now devote dozens of hours each month to allay the concerns of parents. About ten years ago, when I was working on an article about this subject for a national women’s magazine, a pediatrician told me that parents in their 20s and 30s, who were of course routinely immunized by their own parents before there was an anti-vaccine movement, were almost never aware that whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, and measles, not to mention polio, used to kill thousands of children every year. Of course they don’t know, because they had privilege of growing up in a society where these killer diseases had been so thoroughly defeated that they weren’t even a bad memory.

The HPV vaccine means that young girls, if they are immunized, can grow up with a much lower risk of contracting cervical cancer should they be infected one day by a man who has no knowledge that he is a carrier. HPV, like many sexually transmitted organisms, is so common-researchers think that half of all adults are infected at some point in their lives-that it is a moral crime not to take advantage of an easy way to prevent it from being transmitted and causing cancer and other infections of the reproductive system.

But why listen to your doctor when you can acquire pearls of wisdom from a celebrity-nitwit, whether from the world of politics or entertainment, who thinks she knows better than people who have devoted their careers to scientific research and medicine? Bachmann will never know how many grown women will develop cervical cancer 20 years from now because their parents listened to her ignorant spiel about “innocent” children supposedly menaced by a vaccine endorsed by government a.k.a. evil health officials and scientists who received government a.k.a. evil research grants. Her message, like that of the general anti-vaccine movement, is that feelings, not facts, are what count.

Susan Jacoby
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  • Tron78

    I agree with the author that Bachmann is a danger to public health but it would be nice if the author had at least viewed the Wiki article or had completed some research on the anti-vaccine controversy. “The New England Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was formed in 1882”, I think this predates the 1998 date stated above.

  • justasking3

    I agree with you 100%, but recent reports from public health officials show increasing distrust of vaccines among populations that heretofore have been quite supportive of vaccinations and their larger purpose: liberals. NPR reported on such distrust back on September 13. Is there some kind of awful irony to be found that misinformation, anti-science animus and ignorance are spreading beyond the original host population?

  • david6

    You are completely off-topic.

  • david6

    Science has progressed since 1882. Anti-science crazies have not.

  • WmarkW

    Ok, I’m off this week’s topic.

    But the state of education in Texas has come up in Susan’s columns once or twice.

  • Carstonio

    Although Jacoby is right to criticize the lack of scientific knowledge involved in opposition to vaccines, she is conflating two separate movements.

    The one spawned by Wakefield’s deception is a largely secular movement. From my experience with members of that group, I suspect they’re suffering from unresolved grief – they describe the onset of autism in their children as a traumatic loss for themselves. As a parent myself I can sympathize while seeing their attitude as a disservice to their children.

    By contrast, the anti-HPV movement is rooted in an authoritarian variety of religious belief about sex and about gender roles. It seems to believe that STDs are a deserved or even a divine punishment for sexual activity, particularly in girls. The idea that the HPV vaccine would tempt girls to become sexually active is ludicrous at best, and cruel and sexist at worst.

    Not being a medical professional, I don’t know if the public health risk from HPV warrants the vaccine being mandatory. I would say that the standard for mandating any vaccine against STDs should be the same as for any other type of vaccine.

  • WmarkW

    As long as I’m posting off-topic stuff about Rick Perry, you know who’s going to the 236th execution under his watch, today? James Russell Brewer, one of the men who dragged James Byrd behind a pickup truck in 1998.

    I don’t expect too many of those Troy Davis protestors to take time out to vent about how awful the death penalty is in that case.

  • Susan_Jacoby

    Absolutely right. I should have said explicitly that the holistic health crowd is mainly on the political left; that’s what I meant by an odd combination.

  • YEAL9

    S. Jacoby is pro-choice with respect to abortion but it appears she supports mandatory vaccination with the HPV vaccine. Hmmm??? One wonders why she does not support mandatory intercourse abstinence until after marriage since this would basically eliminate the epidemics of abortion and STDs.

  • mrbradwii

    I always thought it odd that Perry promoted such a progressive pro-woman program. It will be interesting to see how he disassociates himself with himself.

    Bachman is officially a flake, perhaps a retarded flake, and needs no further comment. If she’s the life of the tea party,the party is over.

    An interesting thought experiment : What if, for the other sexualized cancer, there were an effective prophylactic against breast cancer, who would be clamoring for it to be mandatory and who would be clamoring for it to be voluntary and who would be made to pay for it?

  • Carstonio

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, mostly because the sentencing usually comes down to the likability of the victim.

  • persiflage

    And along those same lines, the wave of anti-circumcision sentiment for male infants is coming mainly from the political left, despite strong evidence that male circumcision significantly retards the transmission of both HPV and HIV — among other benefits.

    The holistic health hysteria generated by this topic was seen here recently On Faith with the coverage of an anti-circumcision law on the ballot in San Franciso – which was resoundingly defeated.

    The anti-vaccination movement is similarly worrisome and with far greater potential consequences.

  • persiflage

    ‘I don’t expect too many of those Troy Davis protestors to take time out to vent about how awful the death penalty is in that case. ‘

    I’m wondering exactly what point is being made here? On the one hand, there seemed to be a real lack of hard evidence in the Troy Davis case, and many of the witnesses against him recanted their testimony. It seems clear that Georgia may well have executed an innocent man.

    Regarding Brewer’s guilt, there was never a doubt…..and in the annals of white on black murder, seldom is the guilty party executed so this was a rare exception.

    On the other hand, black on white murder almost always results in the death penalty, as we just saw in Georgia – even with powerful indicators of innocence.

    With regard to the Brewer trio, a more heinous crime against another human is hard to imagine…………

  • WmarkW

    “But why listen to your doctor when you can acquire pearls of wisdom from a celebrity-nitwit, whether from the world of politics or entertainment, who thinks she knows better than people who have devoted their careers to scientific research and medicine? …Her message, like that of the general anti-vaccine movement, is that feelings, not facts, are what count. ”

    This is too true, but like a lot of Jacoby columns ignores how a New Age of Reason needs to overcome the Left, too. Left-wing opposition to science includes things like:

    movements against increased use of artificial chemicals in agriculture, which reduce food prices and improve quality among the budget-limited
    not a single nuclear plant has been opened in the USA in 30 years
    DDT is only minimally being used to reduce malaria in tropical countries, after successfully doing so in the developed world before being banned

    Conservatism is not the only ideological opponent to reason, nor the only party fighting a War on Science.

  • jimhbg

    Can I get some ice cream tonight? I want some ice cream.

  • jimhbg

    I knew a woman who smoked and drank during her pregnancy. Her doctor said an occassional glass of wine wouldn’t hurt during pregnancy (she said), so she had at least one every day.

    Yet when it came time for my grandchild’s imunizations, his mother turned it down, because it could cause her child to become autistic. Sad but true.

  • daniel12

    The future of vaccination will probably be quite interesting. Just as there seem to be quite a few organisms harmful to health there are probably many which would do great good to be introduced into the human body. The alarming thing is that we might be completely ignorant of many good organisms precisely because they do help us and we are not alerted to them as we are alerted to organisms which cause sickness. It also might be vaccinations are inadvertently hurting some of the positive organisms and we might be suffering ill effects on the brain. Interesting how with human society we are familiar with the concept of promoting diversity to strengthen and grow a community, but when it comes to medicine we act like the most narrow-minded people possible and expect medicine to target and kill this and that and do not entertain that much around us might actually promote health…It does not seem so unreasonable to me that vaccinations might cause problems when in a war collateral damage occurs all the time. I can understand the positive effect of vaccination, but what of the negatives? Good question for medicine. Time will tell I suppose….

  • WmarkW

    My point above is that while the Troy Davis case should be part of a debate about whether the implementation of capital punishment needs some refinements to our legal system, Brewer’s case is the one to consider when discussing whether capital punishment should exist at all.
    Fact Check: Brewer’s fist name is Lawrence; I had in wrong in original.

  • TopTurtle

    What a completely nonsensical post.

  • thebump

    Inconveniently for the authoress and her prejudices, the preponderance of anti-vaccine kooks are on her side of the political spectrum, and/or are Aquarian cultists.

  • WmarkW

    Bump, do you “Recommend” your own posts?

    I was looking at the page when it came in, and by the time its background was white, it was already Recommended.

  • persiflage

    Good catch Mark – the Bump has a very fast index finger. You’re the first to call him out on it.

    The Man Who Shot LIberty Valence.