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.