HPV vaccines have been a big political topic this week in the U.S. It all started at a Republican presidential debate when Michele Bachmann criticized Rick Perry’s executive order which mandated Gardasil for girls in Texas. Refreshingly, the framing of the issue was of pharmaceutical companies buying politicians, rather than the regular conservative line about how the vaccine makes girls turn slutty. This debate dust-up gained more ground when Bachmann began telling news outlets about a post-debate encounter with a woman who said her daughter was harmed by the vaccine. Because women have no credibility, and this story includes three females claiming harm, you can probably guess where this goes next.
News programs were quick to bring on a bunch of dudely experts saying that the vaccine is totally safe. (That’s the “medical community” for ya!) Pundits on the left jumped at another opportunity to write off Bachmann as crazy, while conservative commentators against “big government” mostly took Bachmann’s side. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Rachel Maddow Show each denounced Bachmann’s claim that the vaccine is unsafe. The undercurrent to this coverage was of “that dumb chick just believed what some lady told her?”
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell was one of the few who got it right when his show, The Last Word, revealed Perry’s connections to Merck and the large donations they gave to his PAC. AlterNet also has done their research. When a state mandates the vaccine, Merck is sure to make even more money (Gardasil had already made them $1.5 billion after its first two years on the market).
Unfortunately, this is a case of the wrong person having the (mostly) right message. People aren’t likely to believe the Queen of Scary Eyes, and, given basically everything she has said in the past, that would be a pretty good bet. But even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Between Gardasil and it’s competitor, Cervarix, the vaccines are known to have caused adverse reactions in tens of thousands of girls and women and has been responsible for about 70 deaths. This is only what has been reported to VAERS, the federal government’s Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System. David Kessler, the FDA commissioner under President Clinton, wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that only 1% of doctors reported adverse reactions. There are surely many more reactions and deaths that were never reported, if only because the connection between the two was never made (or the patient was told not to believe there could be a connection). Girls and women who have collapsed after receiving the vaccine have been dismissed as simply fainting because of “fear of needles”.
A second HPV vaccine story was overshadowed this week. Apparently, completing two of the three doses of Cervarix was found to be as effective as completing the series. Funny how a thing like that only comes to light post-market, after years of charging $130 for each of the three shots.
Another timely coincidence regarding the vaccine is that it has been three years to the week that feminist and progressive blogs were up in arms about the Bush administration’s decision to make Gardasil/Cervarix a required vaccine for female immigrants. This too is a red flag for the vaccine’s safety, given the extensive history of people of color, especially women, being used as medical test populations. [Just off the top of my head (with the help of my bookshelf). . . the U.S. nuclear fallout tests over the Marshall Islands which caused generations of birth defects, gynecological experimentation on black slaves, the sterilization of Puerto Rican women without their informed consent, sterilization and other medical abuse of Native American women, the use of Norplant and Depo-Provera in non-Western nations and on poor women in the U.S., and on and on. This shit isn’t new.]
So, back in 2008, Feministe and RH Reality Check both wrote about this new vaccine requirement for immigrant girls and women (which has since been rescinded). Think Progress also had an article, titled “Bush Administration Forcing HPV Vaccine on Immigrants”. Here’s a screenshot of the article’s page at the moment.
This juxtaposition is a good visual summary of the response of many liberal TV people this week: the vaccine was scary and imposing then, but not since this wacky congresswoman started questioning it. And if the first photo of her shrugging didn’t let you know that she’s stupid, the second photo of Bachmann shrugging in the article will do it. The “expert” the headline refers to is Art Caplan, a bioethicist, who is challenging her to produce proof that the vaccine causes “mental retardation” as the woman who talked to Bachmann said. While the reported adverse effects haven’t shown cognitive problems, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, nor does it mean that the vaccine is otherwise safe.
But whether or not that particular woman’s daughter acquired a cognitive disability because of the vaccine isn’t even the point. If the woman had said her daughter had one of the proven severe effects (like paralysis and seizures), the media response would still be the same. Some man would still ask her to prove to him that it’s unsafe (by his standards, not the standards of someone who might receive the drug, i.e. a female person).
Women’s experiences are always reduced to “claims” and “anecdotes”. The kind of proof that females have to show must go above and beyond whatever the male standard is. As I have written about previously, the side effects of birth control are minimized as well; it’s just something you supposedly have to deal with as a woman. ‘Female as masochist’ is an idea that runs deep.
When women refuse Pap tests, hospital birth, or other questionable medical intervention, they are accused of acting childish and not taking their health seriously. In reality, it’s the doctors who treat women as if we were stupid and immature. Whatever Bachmann’s motives may be for taking this position, the backlash to it is clear: don’t question what we say has to be done to your female body.
Dr. Diane Harper, the director of the Gynecologic Cancer Prevention Research Group at University of Missouri said the following to ABC News in 2009:
The rate of serious adverse events is greater than the incidence rate of cervical cancer.
But women who raise concerns about the necessity of the vaccine are the irrational ones?
Well, fetch me my fainting couch.
A documentary about adverse reactions to Gardasil called “One More Girl” is scheduled for release next year.