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Analysis: Bachmann HPV vaccine comments toxic: U.S. doctors

Sep 15, 2011, 12:21 p.m.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) participates in the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida, September 12, 2011. REUTERS/Scott Audette

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - No matter how much the U.S. medical community challenges the suggestion by presidential candidate Michele Bachmann that a vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) is dangerous, doctors fear the damage has already been done.

Physicians are bracing for more parents to refuse the HPV vaccine, which protects against the most common cause of cervical cancer, for their daughters.

They say the comments by the Republican candidate will only stoke growing and unfounded fears about a whole class of common immunizations needed to fight disease.

"There are people out there who, because of this kind of misinformation, aren't going to get their daughter immunized," said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, a pediatric infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

"As a result, there will be more people who die from cervical cancer," Alexander said in a telephone interview.

Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, an infectious disease expert at Children's Mercy Hospital & Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri, said doctors are already struggling to convince parents to immunize girls against HPV, a sexually transmitted virus.

"There will be repercussions of this comment that will directly impact every provider who takes care of adolescents and young women," Jackson said in a telephone interview.

Bachmann first raised the issue during a Republican presidential debate on Monday as a swipe at Republican rival and Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose state mandates HPV vaccines as part of a school immunization requirement.

In that forum, she questioned the state's authority to force "innocent little 12-year-old girls" to have a "government injection" that was "potentially dangerous."

The following day, she told NBC's "Today" show the story of a woman from Tampa, Florida, who approached her after the debate and said her daughter became "mentally retarded" after getting the Gardasil vaccine made by Merck.

Physician groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics rushed out statements defending the safety of Merck's vaccine and Cervarix made by GlaxoSmithKline, whose most common side effects include a sore arm, a rash and fever.

As a measure of their incredulity over Bachmann's comments, two bioethicists are offering rewards, one of more than $10,000, if she can bring forward the child who suffered irreparable damage.

'THE INTERNET, AND INNUENDO'

Doctors say more than 35 million doses of Gardasil have been administered since it was approved in 2006 and its safety profile has held up. But no amount of proof will suffice for some families, who fear that even a small percentage of children may be harmed.

"I recently had a mother who had cervical cancer who refused the HPV vaccine for her child," Jackson said. "I asked her where she got her information and she said, 'the Internet, and innuendo.'"

That may help explain the slow uptake of the HPV vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 32 percent of adolescent girls last year had gotten all three shots of the HPV vaccine.

"We've got 12,000 women a year in this country getting cervical cancer. The vaccine could prevent about 70 percent of that," Alexander said.

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