Public Health in the Political Crossfire
Sep 20, 2011

Last week, Michele Bachmann’s misinformed statements on the HPV vaccine illustrated just how much impact politicians can have on public health.
In a matter of hours, with the help of several major news sources, Bachmann was able to inject an irrational fear of the life-saving HPV vaccine based on the anecdotal evidence of “Some Lady I Just Met”.  One week later, the complaint in The New York Times remains that Bachmann’s brief, but damaging comments, regarding the safety of the HPV vaccine, may have instilled so much doubt among parents and young women that there may be ripple effects in HPV vaccine uptake for years to come.
Interestingly enough, Bachmann began her complaint about the HPV vaccine in response to a concern about her political opponent Rick Perry.  Back in 2007, the Texas Governor attempted
to use an executive order to mandate the anti-cancer HPV vaccine in Texas.  There were plenty of critics at the time, many suggesting that the HPV vaccine would promote promiscuity among adolescent girls and others who did not agree with immunization mandates.  Eventually, the legislative pressure forced Perry to rescind the order.  However, even today, the Governor’s
decisions are stirring up a political debate.  Last week in Tampa, Bachmann accused Perry of “crony capitalism,” suggesting that his efforts to mandate the vaccine were motivated by political funding from the vaccine manufacturer.
While it’s no longer surprising to see politicians accused of wrong doing – and it’s almost common place to witness political mud-slinging – it’s disappointing to witness public health practices, such as beneficial vaccines, being damaged in the crossfire of political debates.
However, in the week since the Tampa debate, as medical professionals speak out to correct Bachman’s irresponsible comments, we are also discovering that Rick Perry’s support of public health goes beyond accusations.

Frankie Milley with Governor Perry

“As most of you know I live in Texas and have led a huge part of the immunization advocacy for the last 12 years. In those years, I have had the privilege to work with Governor Perry on many of these issues. In fact one of the first bills he signed into law was SB 31 which required all school age through college students, and their parents, to be educated on bacterial meningitis with a signed acknowledgment. It was the first of its’ kind in the US. Later he would sign day care law which required all to be fully immunized, while adding pneumococcal vaccine to that list. He also signed one of the first bills in the country that allowed philosophical exemption from vaccines.
As for the HPV bill, I was actually at the capitol when this was proposed.  I saw our Governor pushing a young woman down the hall in her wheelchair who was dying from  cervical cancer. I will never forget the look on his face. It was one of great sadness and passion. She had gone to him and pleaded for him to please help her stop this deadly, preventable form of cancer. She was dying. Her time was short. He became committed to her cause. As you know, the law never happened. Three months after that day a very grieved Governor Perry gave the eulogy at her funeral. It was one of the most beautiful I ever read. It saddens me to hear all the negative media around his purpose. I wondered why he never included her in his defense as he, even now, takes unfair and unjust hits on this issue. I think it is the character of the man who would give a beautiful, young woman her privacy even in death.
As a citizen of Texas, I don’t agree with everything our Governor does. However, I believe his heart has, and is, for the people he represents. I believe every bill he has signed regarding immunization issues have been done with a thoughtful heart and care for all. Even the op-out, though I did not agree with that one.
I thank him for being a leader and for helping our legislators, health department and advocates become a leading state on vaccine preventable diseases.”

Following this comment, we also caught an article in this weekend’s Boston Herald which featured a more detailed description of the friendship Perry had with cervical cancer patient Heather Burcham.   There have even been several news programs, like the one featured in this video below, that have highlighted Heather Burcham, her friendship with Governor Perry, and her efforts to promote the HPV vaccine before her death.
While Perry may have purposely remained silent regarding his personal experiences regarding this issue, these stories and other videos like these help to illustrate that there is more to Governor Perry than immunization mandates.  In fact, it may be of interest for some to know that Perry’s wife, Anita, once had a career as a nurse.  She has stated that her support for immunization issues stems from years of watching people suffer and die needlessly from preventable diseases. As Texas’s first lady, she has worked with the state’s Department of Health to increase immunization rates and has served as the national chair for childhood immunizations with the March of Dimes, where she volunteers. Obviously, the Perry’s experiences have contributed to their views of public health.
This information is presented, not to illicit political discussion regarding specific candidates, but to suggest that we should be mindful of all our candidates’ views of public health.  In some ways, we were fortunate that this topic gained so much attention in Tampa.  It has helped to decipher the candidates who are willing to take a stand for strong public health measures even in anticipation of political opposition, versus the candidates who continue to question the science that our current public health recommendations are based upon.
What has been your response to the HPV debate? Do you think that the political attention on public health issues will make any impact on voter’s decisions?  We welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

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