What frustrates me the most about this HPV vaccine tempest is that buried beneath her fear-mongering and nauseating misstatement of the science, Michele Bachmann has a germ of a point: Rick Perry’s drug company ties do make his executive order smell bad. Yesterday, the National Journal pointed out that Perry’s campaign received more than $28,000 from Merck, the manufacturer of Gardasil, not the $5,000 he cited during the debate. Even the pro-vaccine blogger at Respectful Insolence, where anti-vaccination advocates are skewered and belittled, said, “believe it or not, there are valid reasons to criticize Perry for this decision not because Gardasil is harmful or not a good vaccine but because of the conflict of interest there appeared to be.”
I think vaccinating all young women—and all young men!—against HPV is wise. At the urging of my doctor, I received Gardasil soon after its release. (I was in my early 20s at the time, below the cut-off age of 26, but well above the ideal vaccination age of 11 or 12.) But the vaccine discussion in this country is so shrill, so fraught, so fragile that even a whiff of impropriety can be damaging to public health. Paul Offit, one of the best advocates on the importance of vaccination, will never be trustworthy to a certain segment of the population, because of his alleged conflict of interest: He co-invented a rotavirus vaccine. He is unfairly maligned as “Dr. Profitt” by many anti-vaccinationists. The rotavirus vaccination has likely saved lives at home and abroad, and to the best of my knowledge he has never hidden his role in its invention. His work in the vaccination field makes him an expert. But many will never cease to focus only on the money he made. “Yes, I’m co-inventor and co-patent holder of the rotavirus vaccine, but I didn’t do it for money and I no longer make any money off of it,” he told U.S. News and World Report’s Deborah Kotz in 2009. No matter. Offit’s word now counts for less than nothing to anti-vaccine activists.
In the same vein, it doesn’t even matter whether Perry’s decision to mandate HPV vaccination for Texas’ young girls was influenced by his campaign coffers. To anti-vaccination advocates, this is more fodder for their paranoia about Big Pharma and government conspiring to shoot kids up with toxins.
Correction: This post originally misspelled Michele Bachmann’s surname.