This is a few days old, but I haven’t had time to post it. Over at the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Site, Susan Jacoby is producing an awesome column called “The Spirited Atheist” (kudos to the Post for even having such a feature). Her latest piece, “Michele Bachmann and anti-HPV vaccine unreason,” is a spirited (and accurate) defense of the safety and efficacy of the human papilloma virus vaccination against those who claim that the vaccination is harmful, causing mental retardation. (There is no evidence for Bachann’s claim about that, by the way). Jacoby also goes after anti-vaxers in general, contrasting their unsupported and anecdotal “science” against the methods of real science, which showed that early reports by Andrew Wakefield of a connection between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccines and autism were bogus, based on faked data.
This entire episode, by the way, vitiates the notion of some religious believers that science is “just another religion.” The self-correcting mechanism of science, in which the results of studies must be testable by peers and replicated in order to be accepted, does not exist in religion.. The anti-vaccine crusaders, who continue to believe that immunizations the villain in the face of powerful scientific evidence to the contrary, are the ones in the grip of blind faith.
HPV vaccine, which appears completely safe and almost completely efficacious in preventing the transmission of HPV, which causes cervical cancer, is in the news because Texas governor Rick Perry mandated, wisely, that it be given to all Texas schoolgirls by the age of 12. Bachmann, right-wing religious loon that she is, objected, mentioning the bogus case of mental retardation that followed such a vaccination and adding:
“To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. That’s a violation of a liberty interest.”
Jacoby’s response to Bachmann’s shenanigans:
. . . The HPV vaccine means that young girls, if they are immunized, can grow up with a much lower risk of contracting cervical cancer should they be infected one day by a man who has no knowledge that he is a carrier. HPV, like many sexually transmitted organisms, is so common-researchers think that half of all adults are infected at some point in their lives-that it is a moral crime not to take advantage of an easy way to prevent it from being transmitted and causing cancer and other infections of the reproductive system.
But why listen to your doctor when you can acquire pearls of wisdom from a celebrity-nitwit, whether from the world of politics or entertainment, who thinks she knows better than people who have devoted their careers to scientific research and medicine? Bachmann will never know how many grown women will develop cervical cancer 20 years from now because their parents listened to her ignorant spiel about “innocent” children supposedly menaced by a vaccine endorsed by government a.k.a. evil health officials and scientists who received government a.k.a. evil research grants. Her message, like that of the general anti-vaccine movement, is that feelings, not facts, are what count.
As I’ve said before, what’s behind all this, beyond the unfounded fears of vaccine safety, is the notion that immunization (a series of three shots) will give young girls a license to have sex. Republicans fear sex far more than Democrats, and that’s why they’re so opposed to HPV vaccination.
But given the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, it should clearly be just as routine an immunization as MMR. Nevertheless, only two segments of the US—the state of Virginia and the District of Columbia—have required vaccination for girls entering the sixth grade. Perry’s propsal will still enable students to opt out of the mandate, which in effect eliminates the requirement for vaccination.
Given the pervasiveness of the virus (roughly 30% of women are infected), I tend to agree with a mandate that doesn’t allow opting out. But HPV is different from MMR or other vaccines that protect one from infections that can be transmitted passively. To get HPV, you have to have sex, and some kids don’t or won’t. I think most of us probably agree that there should at least be a strong recommendation that all girls (and boys, too, who can be carriers) get vaccinated, but how do you feel about giving children the ability to opt out?