September 13, 2011

ABOUT THE ONLY thing that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) gets right when she talks about the HPV vaccine is that she’s not a scientist or a doctor. That lack of credentials, though, can’t excuse the breathtaking ignorance that suffuses her comments about this critical health issue. Nor can it justify her demagoguery about a scientific advance that has the potential to protect thousands of women a year from contracting — and perhaps dying from — cancer.

During Monday night’s CNN-Tea Party Express presidential debate and in subsequent interviews Tuesday morning, Ms. Bachmann attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) for his 2007 executive order that young girls be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus that can lead to cervical cancer and other diseases. “To have innocent little 12-year old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,” she proclaimed Monday. And on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday, she went further, saying Mr. Perry had put girls at risk by forcing “an injection of what could potentially be a very dangerous drug.” Her “proof” was testimony from a mother who said her daughter suffered mental retardation after being vaccinated.

Mr. Perry has said he believes it was a mistake not to involve the Texas Legislature (which has since overturned his order), and there are suggestions — which he vehemently denies — that his interest was a result of cronyism; his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the maker of the vaccine, and Mr. Perry received political donations from the firm. But Mr. Perry was on the right side of science in his support of a vaccine that has proven, through rigorous testing, to be safe and effective. After the vaccine’s approval in 2006, medical authorities recommended that all girls get the shots at age 11 or 12, before they become sexually active; boys have since been added to the recommendation. A number of states considered measures to encourage vaccinations but only Virginia and the District of Columbia made vaccination a condition for admission to school, although — as was the case in Texas — there are easy opt-out provisions for parents.

Much of society has adopted the philosophy that government has a stake in the health of its citizens. Ms. Bachmann’s hysterics about hapless little girls being forced to get injections has us wondering if she would roll back requirements for what has come to be routine immunizations against polio, chicken pox, measles and other diseases. A query e-mailed to her campaign went unanswered. “Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die,” Mr. Perry said Monday. Equally horrible is the thought that small-minded political arguments could sabotage the means that are on hand to stop the spread of this deadly virus — and could undermine the control of many other diseases besides.