Emotion often trumps reason in tough calls

When considered in hindsight, retiring Rep. Michele Bachmann’s, R-Minn., ascension onto the national political stage is rather amazing, given her outrageous positions on any number of issues. Among the greatest Bachmann hits are her allegations that Obamacare “literally kills women, kills children, kills senior citizens,” that carbon dioxide has never once been shown to be harmful and, in fact, is “a harmless gas,” and that Muslim Brotherhood members had set up shop in the higher echelons of the federal government.

It is bad sport, I suppose, to pick on Bachmann for these outlandish remarks, but one premise of hers is particularly useful in illustrating a troubling strand in decision-making at the personal and, too often, political levels: Her conviction, and corresponding series of public remarks, that the human papillomavirus vaccine is dangerous. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Bachmann repeatedly made comments that served to foment fear where it need not exist. On the Today Show, by way of example, she recounted one woman’s tale of vaccine-related tragedy,

“She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter,” Bachmann said. “There is no second chance for these little girls if there is any dangerous consequences to their bodies.”

Whether that tale is true is highly questionable, but the fear of irreparable mental or physical damage that the HPV might unfurl upon unwitting young people is, perhaps, a more wholesome reason to forgo the vaccine for one’s children. The alternative justification is even more far-fetched: that those children will never be sexually active, so the vaccine is unnecessary. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

A March study in the journal Pediatrics found that parental resistance is often rooted in this sort of values-based reasoning. The other side of the denial coin is fear, the study found: giving children the vaccine, a growing number of parents think, promotes promiscuity.

These are rather icky thoughts that make those of us raising children feel squeamish, but too bad. The science on the HPV vaccine is clear and growing more so: It works. The Journal of Infectious Diseases published a study Wednesday reporting that between 2006 and 2010, infections of the cancer-causing strain of HPV dropped by half among girls ages 14-19 – from 7.2 percent to 3.6 percent. Those are dramatic results for a new arrival on the vaccine scene and suggest that, stigma or not, it is an effective preventative measure for avoiding some cancers – namely cervical or throat – in women and men, respectively, later in life.

Further, the study found that the vaccine is more effective when administered much earlier than any potential exposure to the virus. That rebuts the argument that uncomfortable parents make when, at their 11-year-old’s well-child checkup, they are offered a vaccine that suggests the child might someday be sexually active.

That discomfort is understandable but ultimately needs to be put aside in favor of their children’s long-term health. It seems, though, that the resistance is far from a statistical blip. The Pediatrics study found that a growinnumber of parents do not plan to give their children the HPV vaccine. Given the growing data showing its efficacy, that trend does not track with rational decision-making.

The emotions that are fueling the trend at the family level, though, do not appear to be influencing the policy arena, despite Bachmann’s best intentions. That is encouraging, particularly given the troubling and mounting trend of intrusion into personal decisions from the political realm. The science on the HPV vaccine is clear, and thus far anyway, is still politically resistant to the more Puritan-minded among us.

That is not to say that these conversations – about the vaccine or the activity it suggests – should be handled lightly. These are significant issues that families and their doctors should discuss thoroughly and consider fully. But, parental tendencies notwithstanding, those discussions must be based in facts and honesty, not fear and denial.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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