Debunking Michele Bachmann’s HPV Vaccine Anecdote

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Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the debate for Rick Perry last night was the onslaught he faced over his controversial decision as governor to sign an executive order mandating that 12-year-old girls receive a vaccination for HPV, a virus that can cause cervical cancer. Not only had Perry abused his power by bypassing the legislature (which eventually overturned the executive order), but he did so in a way that put the health of innocent children at risk. Or so Michele Bachmann alleged, to some of the loudest applause of the night. "Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don't get a mulligan," Bachmann proclaimed. "They don't get a do-over. The parents don't get a do-over."

To further underscore the dangers of the drug, Bachmann, in a post-debate interview, told Fox News that a woman had approached her after the debate and told her that she had a daughter who "suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine":

Bachmann shared the same story on the Today show this morning, telling Matt Lauer that the woman's "little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter":

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Clearly, Bachmann sees the Gardasil issue as a political winner, and it appears that she plans on bludgeoning Perry with it for as long as she can. She'd be foolish not to — her pointed critiques of Perry last night (including the accusation that he signed the executive order as a favor to the drug company Merck) seemed to invigorate her flagging campaign.

But her focus on the health hazards of the drug is starting to border on demagoguery. Her use of this woman's anecdote, for example, is misleading at best, and disingenuous at worst.

According to a Center for Disease Control page devoted to health concerns surrounding HPV vaccines, 35 million doses of Gardasil were distributed as of June 22, 2011, resulting in 18,727 reports of adverse events. Ninety-two percent of those adverse events were "non-serious" and included things like "fainting, pain, and swelling at the injection site (the arm), headache, nausea, and fever." Among the serious adverse events were reports of the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré Syndrome, blood clots, and death. There's no mention on the CDC page of any reports of Gardasil resulting in mental retardation.

Just to double check, we asked Dr. Kevin Ault, an associate professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University and an investigator in the clinical trials for Gardasil, whether he's familiar with allegations that Gardasil can result in mental retardation. "I've not heard that one before," he told us. He added that even for the serious adverse effects that have been reported, there's been no evidence that they were actually caused by Gardasil. "There's been a nice study from the CDC," he said, "that basically [showed that] if you compare a group of people who got the vaccine to a group of people who didn't get the vaccine, all these things are rare and they occur equally" in both groups.

This isn't to say that the mother Bachmann spoke to was necessarily mistaken about the link between Gardasil and her daughter's mental retardation. We obviously have no idea. And we're guessing Bachmann probably didn't dig into the history of reactions to Gardasil before twice repeating this tragic, heart-wrenching story on national television. But it's fear-mongering to continue to trot out the anecdote as if it reflects an actual danger posed by Gardasil. Not that Bachmann would necessarily have a problem with that.