As Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2007 decision to mandate the human papillomavirus vaccination for young girls and Rep. Michele Bachmann's inflammatory remarks continue to generate controversy, health officials want the public to understand that the vaccine is no more a dangerous, draconian, "government injection" (in Bachmann's words) than the hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella vaccines that most states mandate.
Perry has taken heat on the HPV vaccine mandate from both sides of the political spectrum, but mainly from conservatives, many of whom are suggesting they would strongly oppose any kind of state-mandated vaccine.
"Concerned Women for America opposes the HPV vaccine mandate," Penny Nance, president of the conservative women's advocacy group, told HuffPost. "We strongly disagree with government intrusion in the parent-child relationship."
But the only difference between the HPV vaccine and other less-controversial mandatory vaccines, health officials say, is that the former has been politicized by its association with a sexually transmitted disease. The vaccine is recommended for girls ages 11 or 12, "well before the onset of sexual activity," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which could be alarming to some parents.
The timing of the vaccine's introduction to the public in 2007, when Americans were souring on vaccines in general, may have also contributed to its unpopularity.
"The HPV vaccine is loaded at this point," Dr. Rodney Willoughby of the American Academy of Pediatrics told HuffPost. "It probably could have been considered at a much earlier time and avoided these issues, but there are an awful lot of vaccines out there already and a lot of resistance right now to having your child be a pincushion. Plus, the vaccine is only recommended for girls, and the shading is one of sexual transmission, which is going to make parents even more resistant."
By contrast, there's no general outcry against the hepatitis B vaccine, which is widely mandated by state governments to protect against a sexually transmitted virus. The hep B vaccine has managed to avoid being politicized because it is recommended for babies instead of prepubescent girls, Willoughby said. But every state except for three -- Alabama, Montana and South Dakota -- requires the hepatitis B vaccine for young children. Children are also required to receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine before entering school in every state.
"All of these are government injections," Willoughby said. "Measles used to kill one out of 150 kids. Getting rid of measles, getting rid of polio, those rank up there among some of the major medical advances of the 20th century. Likewise, HPV is a highly fatal virus that kills one out of a thousand people, so why wouldn't you get rid of it if you can?"
Perry's attempt to mandate the vaccine in Texas by executive order was quickly overturned by state lawmakers, and he has spent a disproportionate amount of his presidential campaign trying to defend or explain his order. When the issue caught fire among GOP candidates, major public health organizations -- including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Organization and the American Academy of Family Physicians -- all immediately jumped to the vaccine's defense, touting its strong safety record and lamenting the "negative political and social ramifications" of Perry's decision to circumvent the state legislature.
But it looks like the damage has already been done. A new Daily Kos/SEIU Weekly State of the Nation poll shows that mandating the HPV vaccine for 6th-grade girls is deeply unpopular. Only 22 percent of respondents said they would support the requirement, and 63 percent of conservatives said they oppose the idea. Not a single demographic -- men, women, Democrats or Independents -- would support the mandate.
Unfortunately, Willoughby said, the negative public opinion of the HPV vaccine is going to affect the number of girls who get vaccinated. While other state-mandated vaccines have a 70-90 percent uptake rate, the uptake rate for the HPV series among adolescents was only 35 percent in 2010 and could potentially wane this year with all the political controversy surrounding it.
"Anytime these issues come up, they sort of pour gas on the fire of people that are anti-vaccine," Willoughby said. "But there are direct, measurable consequences to this uptake: It means only 35 percent of the current birth cohort will be protected from a cancer that will kill one in 1,000 of them, and that's just a shame."