Last year, during a Republican primary debate, presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann lashed out against opponent Texas governor Rick Perry for signing an executive order in 2007 requiring sixth-grade girls in the state to get vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), the leading cause of cervical cancer. (Perry eventually overturned the order, admitting it was a “mistake.”)
The morning after the debate, during an interview with the Today show’s Matt Lauer, Bachmann called the HPV vaccine “a very dangerous drug” and suggested a link between the vaccine and mental retardation. She said:
I had a mother come up to me last night here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn’t know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions.
Studies on the HPV vaccine’s side effects continue, but the most concerning adverse reactions have involved dizziness, nausea and fainting — not developmental deficits.
Bachmann’s comments seemed rooted not in science, but in the repeatedly debunked notion that vaccines can cause mental disability — autism, in particular — an unfounded fear that continues to plague parents about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. In 1996, English scientist Andrew Wakefield triggered widespread anxiety by reporting higher rates of autism among children who received the MMR shot. Afterward his study was published, many parents began questioning the safety of vaccines overall, as well as the legitimacy of the government-recommended vaccine schedule, which immunizes children with dozens of shots in their first few years of life.
But despite the fact that the alleged vaccine-autism link isn’t supported by scientific evidence, that Wakefield’s report has been widely debunked and retracted by the scientific journal in which it was published, that Wakefield lost his medical license, and that experts unanimously agree that delaying or skipping vaccines does children harm by exposing them to potentially deadly infectious diseases and reducing immunity in the population overall, many American parents still refuse vaccines for their children.