But the harm to public health may have already been done. When politicians or celebrities raise alarms about vaccines, even false alarms, vaccination rates drop.
“These things always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford,” said Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby, a professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a member of the committee on infectious diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy favors use of the vaccine, as do other medical groups and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The vaccine, recommended by the medical groups for 11- and 12-year-olds, protects against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cancer. Use of the vaccine was disturbingly low even before the Bachmann flap, health officials say. That is partly because of the recent climate of fear about vaccines in general, and partly because some parents feel that giving the vaccine somehow implies that they are accepting or even condoning the idea that their young daughters will soon start having sex.
Allegations that vaccines could cause autism have frightened some parents away from giving them to children. But the question has been studied repeatedly, and there is no evidence for such a link; the research that first promoted the idea was subsequently proved fraudulent.
Indeed, a report published last month by the Institute of Medicine, which advises the government, found that the HPV vaccine was safe.
It did find “strong and generally suggestive” — though not conclusive — evidence that the vaccine could cause severe allergic reactions. But such reactions have been rare.
Historically, Dr. Willoughby said, vaccine scares have caused vaccination rates to drop for three or four years, and have led to outbreaks of diseases that had previously been under control, like measles and whooping cough. Measles cases in the United States reached a 15-year high last spring, with more than 100 cases, most in people who had never been vaccinated.
Once the disease begins to reappear, parents become worried and start vaccinating again. With cervical cancer, Dr. Willoughby said, “unfortunately, the outbreak is silent and will take 20 years to manifest.”
This time, he said, there will be no symptoms to scare parents back into vaccinating their daughters until it is too late.
HPV infection is extremely common — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. More than a quarter of girls and women ages 14 to 49 have been infected, with the highest rate, 44 percent, in those ages 20 to 24.
Millions of new infections occur each year, and researchers think that at least half of all adults have been infected at some point in their lives. The genital region is teeming with HPV, and any kind of intimate contact — not just intercourse — can transmit the virus. In most people, HPV is harmless: The immune system fights it off. But in some people, for unknown reasons, the viruses persist and can cause cancer.
Although the HPV vaccine was initially approved in 2006 to prevent cervical cancer, more recent data has shown that HPV also causes cancers of the penis, anus, vagina, vulva and parts of the throat. Many scientists think that the vaccine can prevent those diseases as well.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on vaccination rates in girls that was “a call to action” to do a better job with the HPV vaccine, according to Dr. Melinda Wharton, deputy director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“We’re not meeting our goals,” Dr. Wharton said. “Girls are not getting an important preventive measure that they need.”
Nationwide, last year only 32 percent of teenage girls received all three shots needed to prevent HPV infection, the disease centers found. Rates of vaccination were much higher (at least 45 percent) in a few states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington and South Dakota. Those furthest below average (20 percent or less) included Idaho, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
The report was particularly troubling, Dr. Wharton said, because it showed use of the HPV vaccine lagging far behind that of two other vaccines that were licensed around the same time, one for meningitis and a combination shot against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough.
“This vaccine has been portrayed as ‘the sex vaccine,’ ” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a member of the infectious disease committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Talking about sexuality for pediatricians and other providers is often difficult.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, acknowledged that 11 or 12 is “a pretty tender age, and parents are having a hard time getting used to this concept.”
But like the measles vaccine and others, this one must be given before a person is exposed to the virus or it will not work.
“Here we’d like to get it completed before the young woman initiates her sex life,” Dr. Schaffner said. “Of course parents, particularly fathers, think that’s going to happen at around age 34.”
The average age of first intercourse in the United States is about 17 for both boys and girls, according to the Kinsey Institute. About 25 percent have had sex by age 15.
Even before Mrs. Bachmann’s comments, family doctors were negotiating with reluctant, confused parents. Dr. Schaffner said he knew a pediatrician who postponed the HPV shots until most patients turned 15 specifically to avoid parents’ objections at the younger age.
In what is an increasingly common occurrence we find someone with a stage making unfounded statements (and later apologizing stating that “she is not a doctor or scientist”. But the damage is already done.
Vaccines are safe and the diseases they prevent are potentially lethal. As people stop vaccinating disease will occur and it could be your relative/child. THere is no evidence that vaccines cause autism and the original research that suggested this has been subsequently shown to be false.
Don’t be fooled by brash unfounded statements and if in doubt study the evidence. All my family are vaccinated…I would not do it if I did not believe it to be safe.