OK, gotta admit I laughed quite hard over the whole Michele Bachmann debacle with Gardasil. I’m no unconditional fan of Gardasil, the controversial HPV vaccine, but Bachmann’s remarks about Gardasil causing mental retardation were simply over the top. It’s possible that she was referring to Alexis Wolf, a teenager whose parents believe that she suffered brain damage as a result of Gardasil-induced seizures, but who knows? Ms. Bachmann is keeping mum.
Still, the bigger issue is substantially more depressing. It’s that the subject of vaccination in general, and Gardasil in particular, is so divisive.
I’ve read multiple blogs where scientists do a knee-jerk ridicule number on anyone who questions Gardasil, and then go on to deride anything but mainstream medicine. I’ve read multiple blogs where anti-vaxxers do a knee-jerk ridicule number on anyone who supports Gardasil, and attribute nothing but mercenary motivation to the medical industry in general.
My God, that’s depressing. And worse, unproductive.
Vaccinations are a miracle. Ask anyone who has suffered polio. But are they are a perfect miracle? Nope. Not by a long shot (pun intended. Sorry about that).
My hope is that both scientists and thoughtful consumers will eventually recognize a basic fact: some vaccines are pretty damn great, but that doesn’t mean that scientists and consumers alike should roll over and stop asking serious questions about them. And it doesn’t mean that you’re an anti-science idiot if you just say no sometimes.
Human physiology is an infinitely complex thing, and we’re a long way from fully understanding it. We know vaccines can do proven damage in a tiny minority of cases. We should be working to understand why, and how we can eliminate that risk too.
We should be looking for the unintended consequences that come with many well-intentioned interventions and eliminating them. And we should be asking questions about a possible cascade effect—perhaps you don’t drop dead on the spot. But could components of multiple vaccines build up over the years, and/or intensify other environmental triggers in the system? Can we identify those people who could be particularly vulnerable to autoimmune disease triggers, and come up with a strategy for them?
Can we be honest about the risks of disease, the risks that lead to disease (e.g. smoking and lousy diet contributing to persistent HPV infection) and the small risks of vaccination? For God’s sake, can we all act, and react, like grown-ups?
The best exchange I ever had with a GYN was with one who at first was very skeptical about the idea that eating your vegetables can reduce the incidence of persistent HPV infection by some 50 percent. I gave her a link to a study. And instead of going very silent, or finding some nit-picky thing to focus on, or rolling her eyes, “Thank you,” she said. “This looks extremely interesting. I’ll read it carefully and see if I should talk to my patients about it. I had no idea.”
Now THAT’S a person who can hear both sides of the conversation. And so I could hear her, too, when she said, “But you should stand in my shoes for a day to understand why I support Gardasil.”
Hey, can we talk?