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Why Politicians (and Some Journalists) Should Be Banned from Talking about Vaccines

Why Politicians (and Some Journalists) Should Be Banned from Talking about Vaccines

Picture of William Heisel

michele bachmann, HPV vaccine, cervical cancer, william heisel, reporting on health

Here's a prediction:

There is a young celebrity today who will give birth to a girl. That girl will develop a physical or mental disability. This celebrity will then blame the vaccine that was given to her daughter to protect her against cervical cancer.

This celebrity won't know that she is saying this because Michele Bachmann made some ill-advised statements about vaccines, but the 2012 presidential candidate's legacy will be secured in online videos, marches, and other efforts to dissuade people from availing themselves of lifesaving vaccines.

This is what happened when Andrew Wakefield linked autism to childhood vaccines, sparking a movement that spread like wildfire under the fanning influence of model-actress-mother-of-an-autistic-child Jenny McCarthy.

McCarthy helped create an era where parents are now refusing to have their children vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases. California has seen a resurgence of infections and deaths from whooping cough, and, as "herd immunity" is weakened by dwindling numbers of people being vaccinated, you can bet on a resurgence of other diseases you thought disappeared a half-century ago, too.

With this in mind, I propose a few suggestions for covering vaccines.

Stop quoting celebrities about vaccines. To see just how slipshod the reporting on vaccines has become, read this Fox News piece titled Farrah Cancer Foundation President Alana Stewart Speaks Out on HPV Vaccine Controversy. There are so many things wrong with it, that I would have to write a series of posts just to explain them all. But the first mistake is giving any credence to someone about a medical issue just because this someone is famous, especially when they are just sounding off at an event. Stewart, a model and actress, might wish she had not said anything about the vaccine. It certainly seems odd that a person ostensibly dedicated combatting cervical cancer would want to scare people away from a lifesaving vaccine. But reporters have an even greater responsibility to fact check what people are saying. Instead, this reporter went on to quote someone from "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." I am not joking.

"Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Kyle Richards, who was also at the benefit, is skeptical of the vaccine all together.

"I have four daughters, I am very wary of that to be honest," she said. "I am waiting until it has been out there a little bit longer. It makes me nervous, but I am waiting until we know more about it."

There should be room for debate about when a public health threat is serious enough to mandate that everyone be vaccinated. But the debate should not be handed over to reality TV stars and model-actresses.

Go find some real facts about cervical cancer. This same story goes on to call the "human papilloma virus, a contributing factor to some strains of cervical cancer." It's actually the only known cause of cervical cancer. Everything else – smoking, diet, use of birth control pills – are contributing factors that can increase one's likelihood of developing cancer after exposure to the virus.

Where confusion often comes in is with the strains of the virus that the vaccine covers. As the story points out, "The National Cancer Institute states that the FDA-approved vaccines are highly effective in preventing infections with HPV types 16 and 18, two high-risk HPVs that cause about 70 percent of cervical and anal cancers." This just means that the vaccines currently on the market cover the most frequently seen types of HPV, not that HPV does not cause all cervical cancer.

Stop saying that vaccines rob children of their innocence. Bachmann has been quoted frequently saying, "To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong."

This statement is a not-so-subtle ploy to conflate the vaccine with sexual promiscuity. The chief argument against the vaccine has been that, by immunizing girls against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer we are somehow encouraging them to have sex at a younger age. I don't know about you, but after receiving the tetanus vaccine as a child, I did not go looking for rusty nails to step on. If a politician or political activist makes this sort of statement, press them to be more specific. How exactly does a vaccine steal a child's innocence? And what makes a vaccine that can prevent one of the two deadliest cancers for women different from the vaccines for polio, measles, and a host of other diseases that no one wants their children to suffer?

The purpose of vaccinating young girls is to make sure that the vaccine has a chance to work before they are exposed to the HPV virus. You can be exposed to HPV by all kinds of skin-to-skin contact that is not sexual, including contact between parents and children.

Go get some real facts about vaccines. The New York Times quickly weighed in with an editorial on the Bachmann comment and summed things up nicely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend the vaccine for young girls and attest to its safety based on 35 million doses administered with few serious side effects.

Go read what Amy Wallace has to say about covering vaccines. It may scare you off the topic entirely. But, if it doesn't, it likely will help you ask better questions and think through the possible downstream effects of your reporting.

Here's one great story idea she suggested: "A recent study showed that more children suffered still-rare fever-related seizures when they received a combination vaccine for measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, rather than separating the vaccine into two doses. Find a pediatrician in your area who can talk anecdotally about this occurrence in his/her practice. It's the perfect way in to a story about the growing movement to space vaccines out instead of delivering them all at once."

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