Will Bachmann’s anti-vaccine pandering fall flat? The changing political landscape for proponents of pediatric and public health

It’s safe to say that Michelle Bachmann is not going to be invited to address any of the National Academies anytime soon: In her relatively short period on the national political stage, she’s produced a string of anti-science (and anti-factual) comments that would make most eighth graders blush. To wit: She told a crowd of supporters that the recent earthquake/hurricane combo that hit the East Coast was God’s way of saying, “Are you going to start listening to me here?”; she said she found it “interesting that in the 1970s, the swine flu broke out then under another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter” (the ’76 outbreak had actually occurred while Republican Gerald Ford was in office); she argued that repealing the minimum wage could wipe out unemployment; she claimed that there are “hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design“; and she made a speech on the House floor in which she said, “There isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas….carbon dioxide is natural, it is not harmful, it is part of Earth’s life-cycle.”

So her apparent decision to attempt to reinvigorate her campaign by attacking Texas governor Rick Perry for his support of vaccinating girls against HPV, a cancer-causing (and therefore potentially fatal) virus, might seem, at first blush, to be just one more example of Bachmann’s disdain for scientific consensus. Bachmann’s opening salvo occurred during last night’s Republican debate in Tampa, when she said, “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just wrong. Little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug don’t get a mulligan.” Later, she told Perry, “I’m offended for all the little girls and parents who didn’t have a choice.”

Then, this morning on The Today Show, Bachmann related a story about a mother who approached her after the debate. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said.

There are some political commentators arguing that Bachmann may have revitalized her campaign with her attack — and she very well might have. (I understand politics about as well as Bachmann understands biology.) But her attack doesn’t seem like the obvious no-brainer it might have been even, say, four years ago, in the run-up to the last presidential election. That was when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain all gave lip service to anti-vaccine activists who claimed that, contrary to all available evidence, there was a link between vaccines and autism.

A lot has happened since then: Andrew Wakefield, the leading progenitor of the modern-day anti-vaccine movement, has been further exposed as a fraud and has thrown in his lot with Truthers and New World Order conspiracists. Pertussis outbreaks have ravaged the country, killing infants and shutting down schools. Measles has shown signs of making a comeback. Pediatricians around the country have begun speaking (and acting) out against parents who put their and other children at risk. And organizations like the Autism Science Foundation (ASF) and Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases (PKIDS) have taken pains to let people know that the anti-vaccine community comprises a tiny minority of the people actively engaged on issues relating to autism and pediatric and public health.

Indeed, I think it’s instructive that one of the first emails I got this morning came from Evan Siegfried, a communications consultant who’s worked for the UN, Rudy Giuliani, and Senator Bill Nelson. Siegfried was writing on behalf of GRASP, an international Aspergers syndrome advocacy organization. “If you are going to do a piece on Bachmann’s vaccine comments,” he wrote,  “I would like to make myself available for you for comment on behalf of GRASP.” Fair enough. Here he is:

“Congresswoman Bachmann’s decision to spread fear of vaccines is dangerous and irresponsible. There is zero credible scientific evidence that vaccines cause mental retardation or autism. She should cease trying to foment fear in order to advance her political agenda.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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