Michelle Bachmann: Public health spokeswoman, Rick Perry strategist, partisan peace-maker

Michelle Bachmann’s non-factual (and non-sensical) claim that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation has gotten an enormous amount of attention in the press over the past 48 hours. (See, for example, Denialism author Michael Specter “Bachmann’s Political Contagion” in The New Yorker; fact-checking efforts by NBC News’s “First Read” and Time‘s “Healthland” blogs; New York magazine’s “Debunking Michelle Bachmann’s HPV Vaccine Anecdote“; USA Today‘s “No evidence HPV vaccines are dangerous“; and Bachmann’s hometown newspaper, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, on her “breathtaking act of political irresponsibility.”)

Bachmann undoubtedly wanted to reclaim some of the spotlight that had been focused on the unfolding Rick Perry-Mitt Romney horserace — but I doubt this is what she had in mind. Looking back over the past several days, I think there are four points worth highlighting:

1. Bachmann managed to turn a political victory into a self-inflicted wound that may have fatally torpedoed her chance to make a legitimate run at the Republican nomination.

Remember, this all started during Monday night’s Republican presidential debate in Tampa, when Bachmann attacked Perry’s signing of an executive order that mandated that sixth grade girls receive Gardasil, Merck’s HPV vaccine. “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just wrong,” Bachmann said. “There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate. The governor’s former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for this drug company.” Potent stuff! Perry made a couple of ineffectual efforts to defend himself, but Bachmann’s, um, jab clearly flustered the newly anointed frontrunner.

In the hours after the debate, Erick Erickson put up a post on the conservative blog RedState titled “HPV and Why It Matters.”

The issue is two fold. First, it is an issue of liberty. It is not the same as an MMR [measles, mumps, and rubella] shot because those diseases are communicable in a way HPV is not. Having the state mandate a shot that only one demographic gets because of what that child may do sexually bothers a lot of conservative voters. Perry needs to do a better job explaining that the opt-out was the parent simply saying “no.” He also needs to make clear again that he would have done it differently and also, if he can, point out that no one actually had the injection because of his executive order. …

Second, it is an issue of decision making. Perry conveys that he let emotion guide him in making the decision. That deeply bothers a lot of conservatives. The “I hate cancer” rhetoric does not help him and sounds a bit silly. We all hate a lot of things. Must we mobilize government for each of the things Rick Perry hates? Of course not, but his emotion in the answer does not help him.

It wasn’t until Bachmann went on Fox News’s On the Record with Greta Van Susteren and NBC’s Today Show that she started talking about the “woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate” whose “daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.” In an instant, the “crony capitalism” charge — which was, after all, the charge that had flustered Perry — was no longer the story. In a matter of hours, no less an authority than Rush Limbaugh had announced that Bachmann had jumped the shark:

She scored the points in the debate, but not this comment has become a news item for Bachmann today rather than what she said at the debate last night. That’s what I mean by jumping the shark. She scored the points and should have left it there.

2. A disdain for anti-vaccine lunacy is uniting political partisans on both sides of the aisle.

For years, the anti-vaccine movement has been cited as a left-wing parallel to the climate denial and creationist movements that have gained traction in conservative politics. (On Tuesday, not long after Bachmann started talking about mental retardation, RedState’s Moe Lane posted a piece titled, “Michelle Bachmann: Embracing Teh Lefty Anti-Vaccy Crazy?“) So prevalent is this notion that when Mother Jones ran a piece defending the HPV vaccine, I received multiple emails professing amazement.

And it’s true that in its March/April 2004 issue, Mother Jones ran a 5,500-word feature story titled “Toxic Tipping Point,” which is a classic example of anti-vaccine fear mongering. (In many ways, it reads like a précis to “Deadly Immunity,” the Robert F. Kennedy thimerosal screed that ran in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com in 2005.) But that story now has a prominent disclaimer, making clear that “the scientific debate” the story covered “has been settled: Vaccines do not cause autism.” Over the last several years, Mother Jones has regularly run stories on the dangerous consequences of vaccine denialism both in print and online. (See, for instance: Chris Mooney on “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” May/June 2011; “Did the Anti-Vaccine Movement Help Create a Whooping Cough Epidemic?” June 24 2010;  “Breaking: Vaccines Still Don’t Cause Autism,” June 22, 2009; and Arthur Allen’s “Vaccine Skeptics vs. Your Kids,” Sept/Oct 2008.) Earlier this year, Salon.com officially retracted its RFK Jr. piece.

3. Michelle Bachmann may be the best public relations tool the public health community has to educate the public about HPV.

Genital human papillomaviruses are bad news. They’re the cause of the most commonly transmitted STDs in the country; health officials estimate there are six million new infections each year. Many people are carriers of an HPV and don’t know it. HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer; according to the American Cancer Society, 12,710 American women are expected to be diagnosed this year alone, resulting in 4,290 deaths. HPV infections also cause most anal cancers (projected 2011 U.S. deaths: 770) and some vaginal and penis cancers.

That said, HPV vaccines can be a tough sell: In order to be effective, they should be administered before individuals are sexually active, which means parents need to think about the potential consequences of their pre-teen children having unprotected sex. By voicing some of the more outrageous claims about side-effects of HPV vaccines, Bachmann has, in effect, sparked a conversation about the vaccines efficacy, safety, and importance — and shifted it away from a conversation  about 12-year-olds getting it on.

4. Rick Perry just dodged a bullet.

(Note: I have done absolutely zero independent reporting on how and why Perry came to feel so passionately about the HPV vaccine, so don’t try to read between the lines here.) I’ve done enough research to feel comfortable saying that both versions of the HPV vaccine are safe and effective, and if I had pre-teen children, I would have them vaccinated. That has absolutely no bearing on whether or not Rick Perry’s full-throated endorsement of Gardasil was the result of ethical, above-the-board decision making or whether it was, as Bachmann charged, “crony capitalism” at work. As Kirsten Powers pointed out in The Daily Beast, Perry’s defense — “I raise  about $30 million, and if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended” — is less than reassuring. In reality, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, Merck’s political action committee has donated $29,500 to Perry over the years. The pharmaceutical company has also donated more than $350,000 to the Republican Governors Association since 2006. (Perry was named chairman in 2008 and 2011.) And, as the AP reported, Perry’s chief-of-staff met with aides to discuss Gardasil on the same day in October, 2006, that Merck cut a $5,000 check to Perry’s re-election campaign.

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