I’m trying to remain polite here

I’m trying to remain polite and calm, but we’re wandering into dark territory here:

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.”

OK. Deep breath. For the record, I’ve been afraid of this for a while.

It’s perfectly reasonable to make an argument against the HPV vaccine. It concerns a disease you can truly limit exposure to, short of rape. Yes, condoms don’t fully protect against HPV transmission, so even “safe sex” is suspect, but if you remain abstinent, there’s almost no chance you can get the disease. It’s also true that there are no long-term safety data (on the order of decades), so there is a debate to be had on the benefits and harms over the long haul. And some make the argument that giving a vaccine that protects young girls from a sexually transmitted disease gives the appearance of condoning that behavior.

I disagree with almost all of these statements. Cervical cancer is rare, and with regular preventive care very curable, but it’s still real. The vaccines prevent transmission of the vast majority of strains that are believed to cause cancer. And I would like to protect girls and women from that, as well as the sexually transmitted disease itself. The vaccine has been proven safe in enormous trials. I believe that the very real benefits outweigh the unknown and unlikely potential long-term harms. I also don’t think that there’s a real moral hazard argument here, as the average 9 year old doesn’t have the developmental thought necessary to understand how being HPV-immune should affect her sexuality.

But this is a debate I’m willing to have. Reasonable people can disagree. HPV is not the same as most other infectious diseases we vaccinate against.

What is not reasonable is making wild claims with unproven anecdotes in order to score political points:

There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.

First of all, mental retardation is not something that commonly “develops” in a preadolescent girl. Is Rep. Bachmann talking about autism? If so, that doesn’t develop suddenly in this age group either. Regardless, of the 35,000,000 doses of Gardisil given so far, there have been no reports of mental retardation or brain damage.

I don’t know what Rep. Bachmann’s sudden interest is in vaccine safety. I hope it’s not for political gain. Because at this moment, if you want to immunize your child for HPV in the vast majority of states, it’s recommended. If you don’t, no one forces you to. That’s how we do vaccines here. No one holds a gun to your head. Only a few states even go so far as “opt out” on this one.

But the language that some are engaging in now is not questioning the wisdom of this particular vaccine as a policy. It’s questioning whether we can “believe” the vaccines are safe. Unless you have good proof they’re not, politicians need to be careful. People believe in you. People believe what you say. And if you start using fear of vaccines to win political points, the side-effects will be real.

The way in which we decide vaccine policy, and whether certain vaccines meet the standard for government intervention, is open to opinion. Their safety, however, is determined by science, and science should not be political.

UPDATE: Edited for clarity after I took a break.

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