Story first appeared in USA TODAY.
Doctors and public health leaders are speaking out to correct misinformation about the safety of HPV vaccines that prevent cervical cancer.
At a time when once-forgotten infectious diseases are making a comeback, health advocates say they're concerned that lifesaving vaccines could become a casuality of the fight to win the Republican presidential nomination. The Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines to help prevent cervical cancer, which affects more than 12,000 women each year and kills 4,200.
During Monday's debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., criticized Texas Gov. Rick Perry's attempt to require the shots for schoolgirls. In TV interviews Tuesday, Bachmann attacked the vaccines themselves as dangerous, relating a conversation with a mother who blames the shots for her daughter's mental retardation.
There's no evidence that the HPV shot — or any other vaccine — causes retardation, says O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement, Burton said in a statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.
Kevin Ault, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, notes that the HPV shot is approved for girls beginning at age 9 and is recommended as part of the normal round of shots that girls receive at age 11 or 12.
Few children with developmental disabilities are diagnosed that late, Ault says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scrutinizes vaccines carefully and has found no sign that the HPV vaccine causes serious side effects, other than a sore arm and occasional fainting, Ault says. Before approval, the HPV shot was tested in more than 30,000 people, Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says.
In fact, vaccines have been more closely scrutinized than just about any other drug, Offit says. Since approval, the CDC has tracked its safety in two major ways.
First, the CDC monitors reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a database to which anyone can report a suspected side effect. CDC officials then investigate to see whether reported problems could possibly be caused by vaccines or are simply a coincidence.
Second, the CDC has been following girls who receive the vaccine over time, comparing them with a control group of unvaccinated girls, Ault says. Again, the HPV vaccine has been found to be safe.
Parents also have a choice about vaccinating their kids against HPV. Although Perry tried to require HPV shots with an executive order, he was challenged by the state legislature, and his measure never took effect. Only Virginia and the District of Columbia currently require girls to receive HPV shots, although parents also may opt out, according to the Minnesota-based Immunization Action Coalition.
Although the Food and Drug Administration has approved HPV shots for both girls and boys — both can develop genital warts from HPV — the CDC currently recommends the vaccines only for girls, Offit says. The shots are effective only in people who have never been exposed to HPV, Ault says. Because most people are exposed to the virus in the first year after becoming sexually active, doctors urge parents to vaccinate kids when they're young.
Shots against HPV have been more controversial than others because the disease's association with sex.
Although religious conservatives have opposed mandates, many have supported vaccination. Both Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council say parents should make the decision for themselves, but have described the vaccines as an important advance.
Suspicion of vaccines has helped to fuel outbreaks of a number of infectious diseases in recent years, including measles, mumps and whooping cough, according to the CDC. The CDC has tracked at least 193 cases of measles so far this year — three times more than in all of last year.