10/06/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated Dec 06, 2011

The Vilification of a Vaccine

Two years ago, I watched in terror as my 41-year-old sister suffered the paralytic effects of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare condition that in the past has been associated with vaccines, after receiving an inoculation. So I'm not quick to suggest that a shot in the arm is an easy fix for anything.

But as the editor-in-chief of Women's Health magazine, I was flabbergasted by the comments made about the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann during the first Republican debate. She called it "potentially dangerous," then relayed an anecdote on several news programs about a young woman she claims suffered "mental retardation" after receiving the shot. The health community fired back, deriding Bachmann for her lack of medical credibility. And for potentially setting back an important national health initiative -- the push to wipe out cervical cancer.

Reckless sedition aside, at least the Bachmann flap helped the HPV vaccine get some ink. Though we've thoroughly reported on the HPV epidemic in Women's Health, I'm troubled by the dearth of coverage out there -- especially given the fact that if left unmitigated, rampant HPV infections may harm our health in more ways than were previously known. That's not an incendiary, Bachmann-style statement; it's the medically backed truth.

Approximately 20 million Americans currently have HPV, which can have zero symptoms or bloom into visible warts. Each year, over 6 million more will contract the virus. And staggeringly, at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives.

The prevalence of HPV might have something to do with the public's apathy toward it. And it's true that many people's immune systems can effectively clear the virus on their own. Still, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer. (Two types, 16 and 18, are responsible for about 70 percent of all such cancers.) And lest anyone think guys are out of harm's way, consider this: HPV can cause anal and penile cancers, too.

More surprising is that HPV can also wreak havoc above the belt. According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, there has been a major upswing in the HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, a potentially deadly disease often found in the base of the tongue and the tonsils. And the American Cancer Society reports that roughly one-fourth of all oral cancers -- suffered by both men and women -- may now be HPV-related, evidence that the disease can be contracted orally as well.

That fact complicates matters even more since it all but nullifies the argument that the vaccine isn't appropriate for preteen girls. (To optimize its effectiveness, the HPV vaccine should be administered before exposure. And it's undeniable that many young women engage in oral sex years before having intercourse.)

Which is not to say we should mandate that all 12-year-old girls receive the HPV vaccine, as Bachmann rival Republican governor Rick Perry tried to do in his home state of Texas. (To date, voluntary use of the vaccine has been low.) Obviously, nor should we mandate it for boys. (The FDA approved the use of the HPV vaccine in males in 2009.) Rather, we should consider the lifesaving potential of inoculation at the same time we consider the risks. Because while some recipients experience only mild vaccine reactions, such as soreness and redness at the site of the injection, thousands have reported more worrisome issues, including fatigue, blindness and autoimmune complications.

The vaccination my sister received was not for HPV, and the exact etiology of her illness can't be pinpointed. But her ordeal has taught me to be more vigilant when it comes to weighing the risks versus the rewards of medical intervention; likewise, each month I try to empower our readers to take personal responsibility for their wellness. That's why I believe we need to tune out fearmongering politicians and let true authorities communicate the studied facts. Then, we should step aside and allow young men and women -- and their parents -- the freedom to decide if getting the HPV vaccine is a wise investment in their future health.