When the Today Show sat down with presidential candidate Michele Bachmann earlier this month, the conversation quickly took a shift from politics to medicine, re-igniting a debate on the impact of vaccines and the role of government in public health.
Bachmann relayed an anecdote in which she said a Florida mother told her the HPV vaccination caused her daughter to develop mental retardation. Medical experts said such a bold claim from a public figure, no matter the validity of the comment, can severely influence national interest in getting the vaccination.
“I fear this will discourage people from getting the vaccination,” said Dr. John Thorp Jr., a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology in UNC’s School of Medicine. Thorp also said it seemed like the political discussions miss out on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
“A number of credible health organizations went on record to say there is no scientific validity for claiming mental retardation as a side effect of the HPV vaccine,” said Dr. Mary Covington, the executive director for UNC’s Campus Health Services.
Vaccine safety is monitored through VAERS, or Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. Of the 35 million HPV vaccines that have been distributed in the United States since its FDA approval in 2006, VAERS received reports of adverse effects among 0.05 percent of the 35 million. Thorp said that most of the complaints of arm soreness can be attributed to the normal factors involved in a shot or vaccine.
While Covington said it’s unfortunate that conversations surrounding the vaccine have become political ammunition, she said that she’s convinced of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
“I feel badly for the mother who had something happen, but that doesn’t prove a cause and effect relationship,” Covington said.
Approximately 12,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year in the United States and nearly 400 of those instances occur in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
To take a stand against health rumors in the media, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published an open letter to the 2012 presidential candidates.
Click here to read the letter.
The ACOG, an organization affiliated with the Women’s Health branch of Campus Health Services, stressed the importance of facts when discussing the health of the American public. The letter stated that studies show the HPV vaccine is nearly 100 percent effective in protecting females who have not yet been exposed to HPV.
The letter also commented on the safety of the vaccine and said after analyzing 1,000 research publications, no link has been found between immunization and serious conditions that have raised concern in the media.
Thorp estimated that he administers a few hundred HPV vaccinations a year. In 2010, Campus Health administered 209 HPV vaccines, and the Orange County Health Department gave out 109 vaccines between July 2010 and June 2011.
Adrienne Dahrouge, a junior political science major from Charlotte who has had the vaccine, said she decided to get it because “it was kind of a no-brainer,” and that it didn’t hurt at all.
“There is no point in opening yourself up to be at risk for an STD or cancer,” she said.
Locally, the vaccines can be administered from private practitioners, pediatricians, Planned Parenthood, the Orange County Health Department, Campus Health Services and the N.C. Women’s Hospital. The HPV vaccination is administered in three doses over a six month period. The retail value of the vaccine is between $300 and $400.
Thorp said he highly encourages all women between the ages of 9 and 26 to get the vaccination.
“The HPV vaccine could make cervical cancer a disease of the past,” he said.
This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 253 Reporting course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.