Bachmann HPV vaccine comment might spark new patient fears

Health professionals worry that an unfounded claim by the presidential candidate could cause parents to refuse the immunization for their daughters.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Oct. 3, 2011

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After a Republican presidential candidate debate in mid-September, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota made a startling remark.

She told reporters that a supporter approached her and said her daughter developed mental retardation after receiving the human papillomavirus vaccine.

"There are very dangerous consequences," Bachmann said.

Within hours, medical organizations and health professionals across the country published blogs, columns and statements that vehemently discredited her comment.

Bachmann is the latest high-profile figure to fuel public concerns about the safety of childhood and adolescent vaccines. Among the most well-known is actress Jenny McCarthy, who believes immunizations are linked to her son's development of autism. Many studies, however, have rejected any association between autism and vaccines.

Health professionals are concerned that the recent misinformation about the HPV vaccine could prompt more parents to delay or refuse immunizations for their children.

"When any public figure questions vaccine safety, it's something that makes parents worry," said Carol J. Baker, MD, chair of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccine issues.

"It's very distressing to have a public figure say something that's just not valid medically or scientifically."

To address such misinformation, health professionals focus on educating the public about the importance of childhood and adolescent immunizations and their safety. Despite these efforts, research has shown that some parents continue to delay or refuse immunizations for their children. Such acts have contributed to recent outbreaks in the U.S. of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and pertussis, experts say.

Responding to Bachmann

After Bachmann's comment, American Academy of Pediatrics President O. Marion Burton, MD, issued a statement saying "there is absolutely no scientific validity" to Bachmann's remark that the HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. "Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record."

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, was so sure that Bachmann was wrong that he pledged to donate $10,000 to the charity of her choice if she could find a case where a person was made "retarded" by the HPV vaccine. The stipulation was that physicians would have to confirm that the immunization caused the condition. Bachmann did not respond to his challenge, said Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

Mild side effects, such as soreness at the injection site, have been reported after receiving the HPV vaccine, said Joseph Bocchini, MD, chair of the ACIP's HPV vaccine work group. On rare occasions, more serious reactions, such as anaphylaxis and syncope, have been reported.

But he said there is no evidence that the immunization causes mental retardation.

"It is important that people look at the science and look at evidence rather than [believe] a comment that is made about the vaccine," Dr. Bocchini said. He said he hopes "information that has come from the medical community and public health officials will make families feel more comfortable about the use of this vaccine and make them aware that the vaccine is safe."

Although Bachmann's comments were irresponsible, they probably will not be as detrimental to immunization rates as McCarthy's claim of an autism-vaccine link, said infectious diseases expert William Schaffner, MD, chair of the Dept. of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. He noted McCarthy was confident about the now-disproven relationship between vaccines and autism, and discussed the link for years.

Bachmann made the HPV comment over a period of days and since has backed off the statement, pointing out that she is neither a doctor nor a scientist.

Some experts say that the medical community's response to Bachmann's comment could shed some more light on the importance and safety of HPV immunization.

"Maybe it produced some conversation on [the HPV vaccine] that is necessary," said Mary Anne Jackson, MD, a member of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases.

Pediatricians and family physicians should expect an increase in parental concerns about vaccines in the weeks to come because of Bachmann's comment, health professionals said.

Dr. Baker said some parents always need to be reassured by their child's doctor when a public figure raises fears about immunizations.

In those instances, she encourages physicians to start the discussion by talking about what disease the vaccine prevents.

Dr. Baker said physicians then should discuss the efficacy of the immunization, the extent to which it has been studied for safety and the proven side effects.

When talking to parents about the HPV vaccine, Dr. Baker recommends that doctors tell them the immunization has never caused a case of mental retardation.

"Just hit [the allegation] right in the eye."

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External links

"National and State Vaccination Coverage Among Adolescents Aged 13 through 17 years -- United States, 2010," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Aug. 26 (link)

HPV vaccination, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (link)

Cervical cancer, National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (link)

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