Michele Bachmann and vaccines: if only we could vaccinate against HPV rumours

Michelle Bachmann is not an authority on HPV vaccination but may negatively influence the vaccine’s uptake in the United States. Gage Skidmore

Michele Bachmann’s unfounded statement about HPV vaccination and mental retardation couldn’t be further from the truth. But the damage her statements may cause is even more disturbing than what she says because it has serious ramifications for sexual health.

Bachmann might as well have stated that eating cookies causes lung cancer. Her statement was not only non-credible but also very misleading.

That an influential person in politics could make such unsupported statements is particularly troubling because vaccination support has a checkered past.

The confusion about MMR vaccination and Andrew Wakefield’s claims as well as the recent CIA trickery involving a vaccination program have contributed to public scepticism toward this important public health measure.

HPV vaccination is one of the safest vaccines we have and one of the most exciting developments in preventative sexual health. It’s easy to “use” and people can’t forget to use it or use it incorrectly, as they might a condom.

It does require three vaccinations, though, which means it can be difficult for some individuals to complete the course.

Delivering vaccines to adolescents can be complex, especially in countries like the United States, where there’s no system in place to distribute it in mass settings.

In Australia, we have pretty high HPV coverage because we have school-based vaccinations. Coverage ranges from 63% to 80% for the three-dose course, depending on the state.

Determinants to vaccine uptake

But to receive the vaccine course in the United States, adolescents need to take time off school to go to a physician and parents need to take time off work to accompany their child.

Parents also need to submit information to insurance companies about the visit and vaccination for reimbursement. And they will have to do all of that three times.

So there’s a large barrier for both initiating and completing HPV vaccination.

Some vaccinations in the US are mandatory for school enrolment and this increases their coverage. But considering mandates for HPV vaccination has been hotly contested, and it’s unlikely to be made mandatory there.

Vaccinating against a sexually transmitted infection scares parents and some still feel they don’t have the safety information they need to make an informed decision.

At present, 49% of eligible US adolescents have initiated the HPV vaccine course but only 32% have completed it. So anything that affects already low uptake of HPV vaccine is potentially disastrous.

And while it’s impossible to tell yet whether Bachmann’s statements had any impact on actual vaccine uptake, we can expect these rumours may reduce confidence in HPV vaccination.

In Australia, we have data showing rumours and myths can affect girls’ responses to HPV vaccination when they haven’t been properly educated about the shots.

Girls may become so fearful on vaccination day that they decline the vaccination. And, in mass vaccination settings, one girl’s reaction will affect several other girls’ responses.

Thinking around the problem

Critically analysing messages we receive in the media about health is necessary. And the blind acceptance of facts spoken on a televised event is likely a result of low critical thinking skills, low health literacy, and low media literacy in general.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 59% of adults in Australia have lower than adequate health literacy.

Critical thinking, health literacy, and media literacy should all be taught in schools. But there are also online resources to assist in the development of these skills for both adolescents and parents.

With critical analysis, anyone can determine that Michele Bachmann is not an authority on HPV vaccination, and we can conduct our own research to determine that HPV vaccine is safe and effective.

The opportunity girls have today to prevent HPV infection, and thus prevent cervical cancer, is new, exciting, and life-saving. It would be a great pity to squander the opportunity it provides.

So it’s the duty of every thinking citizen to defuse the kinds of rumours started by people like Michele Bachmann and spread the facts about HPV vaccination.