As the Republican presidential field continues to attack Texas Gov. Rick Perry's executive order mandating the HPV vaccine for young girls, health advocates are growing worried that the vaccine itself is being stigmatized.
In the two most recent presidential debates, Perry has had to repeatedly explain and defend the executive order, which he says he signed in order to help prevent girls from developing cervical cancer as a result of contracting the sexually transmitted virus. But his fellow Republican candidates have seized the opportunity to attack him over the issue, at times using some alarming and misleading rhetoric about the vaccine.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) blasted Perry for the vaccine mandate on Monday, calling it a "government injection" of a "potentially dangerous drug." Then Tuesday morning, she insinuated to NBC's "Today Show" that the vaccine can cause mental retardation.
"I will tell you that I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate," Bachmann said. "She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter."
Santorum also painted an alarming picture of the vaccine mandate during Monday night's debate, describing it as "having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government."
Health care advocates are worried that all the negative rhetoric could cause the public to sour on the HPV vaccine itself, which has been proven to dramatically reduce the risk of contracting the particular strains of the virus that cause cervical cancer.
"The HPV vaccine has been shown to be safe and well-tolerated based on multiple medical reports that have been submitted through government databases," Dr. Renata Arrington-Sanders, a professor at Johns Hopkins University medical school, told HuffPost. "It's unfortunate that this particular vaccine is surrounded by a lot of controversy just because it's been labeled as an STD-prevention vaccine. We have similar vaccines, such as one for hepatitis B, that are also used in a mandated approach and have shown very successful rates with prevention."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cervical cancer is the second leading cancer killer of women in the world. Almost 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of cases of genital warts are linked to the four strains of HPV that can be prevented with Merck's Gardasil vaccine or GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix.
The CDC recommends that girls receive the vaccine at the age of 11 or 12, in order to increase the likelihood that they will be vaccinated before having sexual contact. It consists of a series of three injections over a six-month period. Similarly, the hepatitis B vaccine is a 3-shot series that prevents a disease that can be transmitted through blood and sexual fluids. It is is administered at birth, or within a 2 month time frame, and in most states it's required for entrance into school system.
Perry's 2007 executive order, which was quickly overturned by the state legislature, would have required all sixth grade girls in the state to receive the vaccine unless their parents opted out.
While Perry has taken a heaping of political criticism for his decision, few have mentioned the fact that Virginia -- which is currently run by a Republican governor -- has a nearly identical law on the books that the state legislature declined to overturn earlier this year.
"I think for decades we have hoped for a vaccine against cancer, and this is the first time we have that situation," said state Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D), who voted to uphold the vaccine mandate in Virginia. "Im satisfied with the Virginia system, by which parents can opt out easily if they choose to."
The Texas law would not have been a pure mandate either, as Perry noted in Monday night's debate. As in Virginia, parents would not have been required to have their daughters vaccinated. The law would have just made the vaccine available and affordable to all girls, insured and uninsured, through the state vaccination program.
"Given the high cost of the vaccine, it's critical to make sure it's accessible for the uninsured," said Jessica Honke, policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. "If the immunization wasn't required for girls entering sixth grade, there would be no incentive for the health department to make it available and accessible."
According to the Virginia Department of Health, over 8,000 girls have accessed the HPV vaccine through the state vaccination program in the four years since the law was enacted.
To be clear, there are legitimate political concerns that surround what Rick Perry did. His closest advisor works at Merck, the company that makes the Gardasil vaccine -- and his campaign has received more than $30,000 from the pharmaceutical giant since 2000. Further, Perry circumvented the state legislature to get the mandate on the books. Given that he has frequently castigated government interference in people's lives, Perry's decision to intervene in the health care decisions parents make for their children seems incongruous to many conservatives.
That said, the fact that virtually all the political discussion around this particular issue has focused on the role he played in mandating the vaccine as opposed to the merits of the policy underscores the flaws in the electoral system, some supporters of the vaccine observe.
"Here is an opportunity for society to protect young girls from developing cancer in their future," said Whipple. "I think there is a portion of the GOP that is very opposed to mandates of any sort, and it extends to things like this that are protective of women's health."
Honke worries that a discussion of the actual merits of the vaccine, its safety statistics and the economic benefits of preventing cancer as opposed to treating it down the road has gotten lost in the mad rush to score campaign points.
"This is not a political issue -- it's a public safety issue," Honke said. "It comes down to the fact that the HPV vaccination is the best way to decrease the number of young men and women who would otherwise get the HPV disease."
Sam Stein contributed reporting.