Michele Bachmann kept her fading presidential campaign alive on Monday night with a breathtaking act of political irresponsibility -- smearing a vaccine that could save the lives of 4,000 or more American women each year.
The vaccine Bachmann savaged at the Republican presidential debate and afterward radically reduces the risk of cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women worldwide, and each year about 12,000 American women are diagnosed with it. About a third of them die, which is why the vaccine, sold under the brand names Gardasil and Cervarix, is a major public-health advance. HPV can cause cancer in men, too.
Had Bachmann limited her attack to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's executive order to mandate this vaccine in his state, she would have stayed on solid ground when it came to this important issue.
Most other states, including Minnesota, recommend but do not require the vaccine for school-aged kids. (Gardasil and Cervarix are typically given to 11- and 12-year-old girls.) Bachmann also asked a fair question about Perry's financial ties to one of the vaccine's manufacturers.
But the Minnesota congresswoman then recklessly went far beyond the policy questions. Using suggestive language and an unvetted anecdote to portray the vaccine as a big-government plot to harm little girls, she sowed doubts about the vaccine itself.
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong,'' Bachmann railed during the debate. "This is a liberty interest that violates the most deepest, personal part of a little child.''
In a "Today" show interview Tuesday morning, Bachmann continued her attack, asserting that the vaccine can cause mental retardation. Her evidence? Someone in the debate audience came up to Bachmann afterward and said so.
This antiscience, antivaccine political ploy raises even more doubts about Bachmann's already questionable judgment. She's doing again what she's done for years, wielding half-truths and outright prevarication for personal gain.
But unlike other statements about "anti-American" members of Congress and President Obama's supposed billion-dollar trip to India, there's a potential for real harm to result from the congresswoman's thoughtless words.
Because of her fear-mongering, some may decide against protecting their children from these deadly forms of cancer. Bachmann, who never misses a chance to tout her five biological children and 23 foster kids, is advocating irresponsible parenting.
Fears raised by other anti-vaccine advocates have led to parents foregoing other routine shots, resulting in outbreaks of measles and other preventable diseases occurring in Minnesota and elsewhere.
For the record, mental retardation is not listed as one of the vaccine's reported side effects by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 35 million doses of Gardasil have been distributed in the United States.
No medical treatment is 100 percent risk-free, but extensive clinical trials and ongoing monitoring suggest that the vast majority of reported events after vaccination are nonserious, such as fainting and pain or swelling at the injection site. More serious adverse events have not been linked directly to the vaccination.
A recent report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine also reviewed many vaccines' safety and concluded "that few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines.''
Bachmann likely will get a temporary political bump from her aggressive debate performance. But the doubts she raised about the vaccine will linger. This is an unacceptably high price to pay to further her political ambitions.
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