University profs decry Michelle Bachmann’s comments on HPV vaccine, advocate safety for female students

At the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, Michele Bachmann claimed the Human papillomavirus — commonly known as HPV — vaccine is a “potentially dangerous drug.” On the Today Show, Bachmann also said “it can have very dangerous side effects.

HPV is a common virus transmitted through sexual contact, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV vaccines are used to prevent cervical cancer and other cancers caused by HPV.

Mark Ebell, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, said there is absolutely no truth to Bachmann’s claims.

“As far as we know, it appears to be a safe vaccine,” he said. “It’s been in commercial use for about five years and it’s been tested in tens of thousands of women — probably well over 100,000 in clinical trials. As far as we know, there is no evidence to any serious side effects.”

Joel Lee, associate dean for academic affairs at the College of Public Health, said, to the best of his knowledge, there is not sufficient evidence to call this claim into question.

Bachmann’s accusations about the HPV vaccine initiated immediate controversy, causing public health officials across the nation to come forward with evidence, facts and scientific research challenging Bachmann’s allegations.

Lee expressed concern over the public heeding the advice of political candidates over doctors and public health officials, specifically pertaining to the Bachmann situation.

“My policy concern is, because that was so widely shared through the media, are there people who with no other information are going to make a decision not simply to avoid the HPV vaccination, but all types of vaccinations?” Lee said.

Ebell shared Lee’s concerns regarding a potential hesitancy of vaccination.

“It certainly has the potential to harm members of the public,” Ebell said. “Whenever someone makes a statement like that, no matter how ridiculous it is, some folks will believe it and some folks won’t get vaccinated and that leads to problems for everyone.”

Ebell said the HPV vaccine is definitely something female college students should consider.

“They should consider the reason we give the vaccine,” he said. “HPV is one of the primary causes of cervical cancer, so if you can prevent women from getting infected with it then down the road you would prevent cases of cervical cancer. We know the vaccine is effective from preventing women from catching HPV. It hasn’t been around long enough to know for sure if it will prevent cancer, but we believe it because we know HPV causes cancer and, to prevent HPV, it should logically prevent cancer.”

The University Health Center offers the HPV vaccine to University students. Health Communications Coordinator Liz Rachun said the vaccine costs $158 per injection. Three are required for full protection.

“Last year we partnered with the Northeast Health District to offer free low-cost vaccinations,” she said. “They had a federal grant for this purpose. I believe we had close to 300 women take advantage and get vaccinated. Many students come to campus already vaccinated. I do think many of our students have received the [HPV] shots.”

Though controversy over the HPV vaccine has been called into question, public health officials like Ebell and Lee are standing by factual scientific evidence to refute the questionable accusations.

“As an advocate for public health, the evidence tells me that the benefits are far greater than the costs,” Lee said. “If there’s evidence that there are benefits to the population, I’m not sure I could find a reason not to be an advocate.”

When it comes to political candidates shaping their platforms around public health, Ebell said the American public suffers the consequences of deciphering opinion versus factual evidence.

“I think we need to make decisions about public health based on the best available evidence and not so much on opinion or belief,” Ebell said. “Whenever someone says, ‘Well I believe this,’ or, ‘I believe that,’ you really need to ask, ‘Well, what’s the evidence?’ Hopefully we can let evidence inform those opinions.”

Posted October 5, 2011.