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Michele Bachmann Wasn’t Totally Wrong about HPV Vaccines

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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vaccine dose of GardasilOne of my guilty pleasures in this run-up to the next U.S. presidential election is watching proudly ignorant Republican wannabes like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann lashing out at each other instead of Obama. The Minnesota representative recently attacked the Texas governor for proposing in 2007 that pre-pubescent girls in his state be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, HPV, which has been linked to genital warts and cancer, especially in the cervix but also in the anus, vagina, penis and other body parts. So far, tens of millions of girls and young women in the U.S., Canada, Europe and elsewhere have received HPV vaccines, at a total cost of billions of dollars.

Some U.S. religious groups have moral objections to the vaccine, which they believe promotes sexual promiscuity. Bachmann, an evangelical Christian, also raised safety issues, claiming that the vaccine—marketed under the brand name Gardasil by Merck and Cervarix by GlaxoSmithKline—may cause retardation and “could potentially be a very dangerous drug,” The New York Times reported.

Bachmann suggested, furthermore, that Perry’s support for the HPV vaccine might be motivated by “crony capitalism.” Merck had donated $30,000 to Perry’s gubernatorial campaign, The New York Times stated, and one of Merck’s lobbyists, Mike Toomey, had served as a chief of staff for Perry. A Perry spokesman dismissed Bachmann’s charges as “ridiculous.”

I almost hate to say it, but Bachmann’s claims contain a kernel of truth. I’m not talking about her safety concerns, per se. As my Scientific American colleagues pointed out here and here, so far there is no evidence that Gardasil causes brain damage or any other medical problems. No, it’s Bachmann’s other accusation—that Merck might have unduly influenced Perry in 2007—that I have in mind. According to this outstanding 2008 investigation by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the Times, the rapid, widespread acceptance of HPV vaccines stemmed at least in part from the marketing muscle of their manufacturers rather than from the vaccines’ medical merits.

Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, Rosenthal reported, provided “money for activities by patients’ and women’s groups, doctors and medical experts, lobbyists and political organizations interested in the disease, sometimes in ways that skirt disclosure requirements or obscure the companies’ involvement.” Some health authorities worried that “because of the aggressive marketing, even parents of girls who are far from being sexually active may feel pressured into giving them a vaccine that is not yet needed and whose long-term impact is still unclear. Legislative efforts to require girls to have the vaccine only add to the pressure.”

Critics fretted that the HPV vaccine, which can cost up to $1,000 per dose to administer when counting physicians’ fees, may represent an inefficient deployment of scarce health-care resources. HPV is ubiquitous, infecting as many as 80 percent of all adult women, and yet cervical cancer is relatively rare; it kills about 3,600 women a year in the U.S., less than a tenth the number killed by either breast or lung cancer. Because Gardasil and Cervarix vaccines do not prevent all forms of cervical cancer, they do not eliminate the need for pap smears, which can detect cervical cancer in its early, most treatable stages. Nor is it clear how long HPV vaccines provide protection against the papillomavirus.

Rosenthal asserted that the HPV vaccines “are straining national and state health budgets as well as family pocketbooks. These were among the first vaccines approved for universal use in any age group that clearly cost the health system money rather than saved it, in contrast to less expensive shots, against measles and tetanus, for example, that pay for themselves by preventing costly diseases.”

The HPV vaccine, which some authorities are recommending for boys, may yet prove its worth, especially in some low- and middle-income countries, where rates of cervical cancer are higher (because pap smears are less common) than in the U.S. As far as medical scandals go, the vaccine is not in the same league as, say, the surge in psychiatric medication of children, against which I railed in a recent post. But both cases reveal the unhealthy influence of profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies on our health-care system. Whoever our next president is, I hope he or she finds a way to fix this problem.

Photograph of Gardasil courtesy Wikimedia Commons


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mctrader 5:58 pm 09/19/2011

    preventative medicine, and really, medicine in general cannot be measured in a cost effective ratio. Patient well being and increasing quality of life is paramount. It is also a unique conclusion, that a doctor and their patient come to. Everyone is differant so each strategy to accomplish the goal of good health is objective and unique to the patient. For instance, I am immune to small pox…most everybody else isn’t. The cost of my immunity is huge, but most likely not necesary…which is why most everyone else hasnt been vaccinated. You, the gov., the school board, have no business determining if it is right that I should get the small pox vaccine. As such a cost benefit analysis, is ascinine, and really a canard to the real issue here.
    Perry should not have gone around the legislature

    thats it…the opt out option ensured that any parent who gave a dam could stop the vaccination with no consequences. Those children who did get the shot, who’s parents didn’t care to question the efficacy of the shot, are probably the parents of the kids who need the shot the most.
    Your facts are wrong as well. HPV…or warts, is a very common virus…most adults have one strain or another. However, the warts on your hands and face, are not the same strain as the warts on the genitals. The unique strains that occupy those areas, can only be contracted by other warts of the same strain. So why it might be true that 80% of women have hpv, a much smaller portion have the strain of hpv that causes genital warts. The vaccine was designed to combat those strains only, as only these strains run the risk of developing into cervical cancer. HPV has only been linked to cervical cancer, and no credible evidence exists to show otherwise. It is however the same strain that shows up on your penis and scrotum and anus.
    Also, perry was givin 5,000 by merck..not 30,000. You dont investigate whether or not merck gave to the other candidates campaign, and you fail to mention perry’s rationale for the mandate. You automatically assume the hype…dangerous for a scientist! Bachmann was politically motivated to attack perry and accuse him of cronyism…perry was on the record years ago..evidence should decide the debate, not knee jerk reactions to political speech…sorry man, your analysis sucks again!

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  2. 2. Postulator 5:22 am 09/20/2011

    OMG! Drug companies peddle products!

    I think we already know that drug companies do all they can to sell their product. This includes political donations, junkets and gifts for doctors, “relationship building” with regulators…

    Yes the HPV vaccine is worth deploying. No, it’s not the most important vaccine available (and there are separate fights to make parents vaccinate their kids against deadly diseases).

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  3. 3. zorathruster 1:02 pm 09/20/2011

    Her mistake wasn’t that politicians are puppets to any corporate whim. The issue was her appeal to psudo-science as a legitimate objection to a solid approach to public health. Her belief of a 6000 year old earth, reanimation of the dead, and a flood that spared two of each species were not explored either. It appears you missed the real issue, a mistake of supporters rather than critical evaluators.

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  4. 4. 4thbacon 4:59 pm 09/20/2011

    I am amazed that the same people who make tirades against the religious people who believe in something ‘blindly’ would also take just as blindly what the pharmaceutical companies and then doctors tell them to take without first checking into it. I really doubt the pharmaceutical companies give a damn about what their vaccines do or don’t do apart from their bottom line.

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  5. 5. Silverwolf13 8:04 pm 09/20/2011

    Consider that this was a Republican debate. Would any contemporary Republican criticize another Republican for being a corporate shill? Could they afford to, especially one so dependent upon federal largesse as Michele Bachmann (note the federal subsidies for her farms and the federal money for her husband’s clinic, not to mention her congressional salary and her previous salary from the IRS)?

    Not all is as it seems. The motivation behind Bachmann’s statement could stand some analysis.

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  6. 6. Fekix 11:31 am 09/21/2011

    Perry was correct on HPV vaccine for all the wrong reasons. He denies evolutionary theory. This is ironic because he is visual proof that humans once mated with Neanderthals.

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  7. 7. wescott999 1:07 pm 09/21/2011

    I’m not sure why you would want to give nescient knuckleheads like Bachmann any more press than they already get. Some idiot walks along and stumbles over a newspaper and says “OMG I invented journalism.” People read statements like yours as headlines without examining it any further and say to themselves “gee she must be right I think I’ll go vote for her.” Thanks a lot.

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  8. 8. threeboymommy 8:43 pm 09/21/2011

    Thanks for pointing out the undue influence Big Pharma has on our politicians who are in turn influencing policies – witness the AB.499 bill in California awaiting the governor’s signature that will allow minors to be vaccinated without parental consent! Never mind there are kids with allergies to ingredients or who might be ill or otherwise unsuitable for the jabs. There is no question this is an initiative by the vaccine companies masquerading as something for the “public health.”

    But on the topic of Gardasil safety, sorry you got that one wrong. Spend some time at

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  9. 9. jamesonJones22 6:46 pm 09/22/2011

    “wannabes”??? Was this dictated using google’s voice to text technology?
    Remember, Obama is just as ignorant on scientific issues as the republican candidates? Why do we pretend that he is a savior to science because he dislikes combustion? Does Pres. Obama not subscribe to a religion that holds unscientific beliefs just like Michelle Bachmann? I know he has distanced himself from the preacher, but has he disavowed the teachings?

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  10. 10. Mindano Iha 3:55 pm 01/11/2012

    It is amazing and shocking that Merck, the manufacturer of Gardasil appears to know so little about their own product.
    Here are 27 important facts which they do not know:

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