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Junk science and HPV

Score one for Rick Perry and one against Michele Bachmann.

In a recent Republican debate, Bachmann, plainly in search of some way to break Perry's newfound hold on more-conservative Republicans, many of them tea drinkers, lashed out at the Texas governor for signing an executive order in 2007 (later overturned) mandating that all sixth-grade girls get HPV vaccinations.

In fact, all the scientific evidence mandates the conclusion that Perry was right. HPV vaccinations prevent some 70 percent of the instances of cervical cancer in women. More recent evidence also supports giving the vaccine to young men -- to protect their sexual partners and the men themselves from warts. No significant side effects in major national studies. An absolute no-brainer for responsible parents and their children.

The kicker, though, is that the vaccinations have to be given to young people before they are exposed to the virus, which means before they are sexually active. The vaccine is substantially more effective in girls ages 9 to 11 than in older girls. The literature suggests that the absolute outside limit for beginning the doses tends to be in the 20s. Use it or lose it.

Now Perry is being criticized (at least by those who are looking to criticize him) for having made what clearly turned out to be the correct decision allegedly for the wrong reasons: because he has received some $30,000 in the 11 years since 2000, and because a former staffer used to work as a lobbyist for Merck in just this area. Who knows?

The fact is: He was right. Following his lead would mean more lives saved, and frankly, as much as I support campaign finance reform, I'm hard-pressed to believe that an average of $3,000 a year would convince any politician in Texas to do anything.

But that would all be ancient history were it not for Bachmann's choice of the subject as grounds for attacking Perry's conservative credentials. Against all the scientific evidence, Bachmann posited what she said was the case of a woman who approached her after the Tea Party debate and told her that her daughter became mentally retarded after being vaccinated for HPV. And on that basis, Bachmann is attacking Perry.

It would almost be funny if I weren't sure there were frightened parents and children watching. They might avoid vaccination because of the palpable ignorance of a public figure who should get her facts right before she speaks.

Of course Bachmann has a right to say whatever she wants. It's a free country, and the folks listening have a right to make judgments about her based on that.

Health and safety are a different story. Spouting pure junk science is different. Actually, it should not be dignified as science -- an unproved and unchecked supposed anecdote from an unnamed person versus the unchallenged scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness. This is not a subject about which reasonable people can disagree.

Up until now, I thought Bachmann to be just a fringe candidate -- and an unnecessary one at this point, even for her most ideological supporters, because of Perry's very successful entry into the race.

But now I'm getting more concerned. It's not that I think there's any danger of her winning. I don't. I don't even know anybody with any experience in the world who does. It's the danger she poses on the way to defeat. Even losing candidates should watch what they say and take seriously the power they have to influence what people think.

In her comments about HPV, Bachmann completely failed to do that. Down the road, it could cost lives, although she will not be the one to pay the price.

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