A segment on the September 16 edition of Fox News' America Live regarding presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's story about a woman who claimed that her daughter became mentally retarded due to the human papillomavirus vaccine started off well. Fox "Medical A-Team" member Dr. Manny Alvarez pointed out that, contrary to Bachmann's anecdotal claim, the HPV vaccination does not cause mental retardation, and that it's "irresponsible" for her to suggest otherwise. Fellow "Medical A-Team" member Dr. Cynara Coomer agreed, pointing out that complications from the HPV vaccine are extremely rare.
So far, so good -- all medically sound and factually based arguments. But then, Alvarez and Coomer drifted away from that.
Host Megyn Kelly then asked Alvarez, "Dr. Manny, you're not a huge fan of vaccines, right?" He responded, "I'm not." He then said in response to a follow-up question from Kelly: "Would I give it to my daughter? The answer is no."
Huh? After arguing in favor of the efficacy of the HPV vaccine, he agrees with the statement that he's "not a huge fan of vaccines" and that he wouldn't give the HPV vaccine to his daughter?
To be fair, Alvarez may have been referring to his opposition to mandated vaccinations, which he discussed in a newly published column on FoxNews.com. Alvarez has also previously pushed back against the idea that vaccines cause autism, claiming that "I have always been very bullish in impressing upon new parents that vaccinations are vital in preventing deadly diseases in our children, and keeping those that have been eradicated in this country from coming back." Still, for Alvarez to suggest on national TV that he's anti-vaccine is questionable and even dangerous.
But that's not all. Both Alvarez and Coomer went on to suggest that giving a girl the HPV vaccine was akin to giving her a license to have promiscuous sex.
After Alvarez said he would not give the HPV vaccine to his daughter, he added that you can "get away" with not giving a child the vaccine "if you have a very good education towards the individual you're trying to vaccinate." While Alvarez acknowledged the good the HPV vaccine can do in preventing not only cervical cancer but "a lot of things that are the side effects of HPV like cervical dysplasia and painful intercourse and all of that," he pointed out that "this is not like the flu, you know, you can't get on a subway and you can start sneezing and giving everybody HPV," going on to say: "You can have a conversation with your 11-year-old daughter, and if you have strong relationships ... [there are] other ways to protect you without the mandate."
Coomer concurred, then took it even further:
COOMER: I'm not necessarily fearful of the vaccination per se. I think, you know, Dr. Manny's point is very clear. I think the parents need to decide for their children, obviously, what their fear is of how sexually active their children are going to be. If your fear is that your child may be very sexually active with multiple different partners, or if a young girl, 18- or 19-year-old woman feels that she's putting herself at risk, then she may want to consider the vaccination. But I think it's, you know, because of the side effects associated with this, and I think because of the controversy associated with vaccinations, we shouldn't be mandating that every woman should have to have this vaccination.
The idea that an HPV is a license for a teen to have sex -- or even that parents can accurately gauge the level of their children's sexual activity, as Coomer suggested -- has been discredited on Fox News' own website. From the September 16 article, credited to LiveScience:
At least one of the arguments used by conservative Republican presidential candidates to criticize Texas Gov. Rick Perry's attempt to mandate that girls get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted infection HPV is wrong, experts say.
Perry's 2007 attempt to mandate the vaccine in Texas girls failed, in large part because conservative groups argued that inoculating girls against human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted infection that can lead to cervical cancer, might send the message that teen sex is okay. But sexual educators say that there's no evidence that a shot will lead to promiscuity.
"Teenagers, by and large, have sex episodically," said Bill Albert, a spokesman for The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "It has much more to do with opportunity than it does with a vaccination, for heaven's sake."
In addition, Albert told LiveScience, teen sexual activity has been decreasing over the last four years. Gardasil, drugmaker Merck's vaccine against HPV, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006. (Since then, in 2009, the FDA approved another HPV vaccine called Cervarix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline.) There have not been direct studies on the effect of HPV vaccination on teen sexual decisions, Albert said, but dropping rates of sexual activity since the vaccine's introduction suggest that the injections aren't causing teens to throw caution to the wind.
"It hasn't had the undesired effect yet," he said
Parents often underestimate the extent to which their teenagers are sexually active, studies show, which may explain some of the resistance to the vaccine: If you believe that your child will not have sex as a teen, and will never sleep with an HPV carrier, you may be unmotivated to get them the vaccine.
But studies also show a widespread belief that getting the vaccine will actually encourage teens to start having sex early or with more partners. A 2008 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health asked almost 700 moms and teen girls in the United Kingdom about whether they thought HPV vaccination would change teenagers' approach to sex. About a quarter of mothers and a third of adolescent girls said they thought getting the vaccine would make girls in general more likely to have sex, and to do so without protection.
But when asked about their own behavior, the teenagers were much less likely to say Gardasil would make a difference: 31.6 percent said other girls would be more likely to have sex, but only 16.9 percent said the same about themselves. Even more strikingly, 37.5 percent predicted that most girls would be less likely to use protection after vaccination, but only 8.4 percent said they themselves would be less likely to use protection after getting the vaccine. The study only looked at perceptions, not actual behavior, the researchers wrote, but it could be that both adults and teens underestimate other people's ability to use good judgment.
While there are no studies investigating vaccinated and unvaccinated teens' actual behaviors, there is a parallel line of research on the effect of making condoms freely available to teenagers. Those studies have turned up no evidence that condom availability increases sexual activity.
While the article goes on to note that parents are the most important influence on a teen's sexual decisions, it's a major leap from that to Alvarez's suggestion that a good relationship with your child is a substitute for a vaccine. As the Centers for Disease Control states, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease, so much so that that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives.
Coomer's suggestion that women wait until they're over 18 to consider getting the HPV vaccine runs counter to how the vaccine works. The CDC notes that "The vaccines are most effective when given at 11 or 12 years of age."
Alvarez and Coomer may have performed a good deed by shooting down Bachmann's vaccination fear-mongering, but they undid it by giving credence to other unfounded claims.