Bioethicist Bets Bachmann $10,000 on HPV Vaccine Link to Damage

Bioethicist Art Caplan is challenging Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann with a $10,000 bet to prove a claim that a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer caused mental retardation.

Bachmann chastised Texas Governor Rick Perry at a Sept. 12 Republican debate for requiring girls in his state to get Merck & Co.’s Gardasil in 2007 to ward off a sexually transmitted virus that causes cancer. The next day in television interviews, Bachmann said a woman told her the shot, usually given at age 12, triggered mental retardation in the woman’s daughter.

Caplan, director of the center for bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the statements by Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, may cost lives by frightening parents from vaccinating their daughters. He said he’ll pay $10,000 to Bachmann’s charity of choice if she can find such a patient.

“It’s ethically obscene,” Caplan said today in an interview. “The stakes are too high to try to get political advantage by putting young women’s lives at risk.”

If Bachmann takes the challenge and is unable to find three reputable doctors who agree a girl was made mentally retarded by Gardasil, she will have to pay $10,000 to Caplan’s charity of choice, he said.

Caplan announced the wager on the social media site Twitter and said he hasn’t heard from the Bachmann campaign. Neither Bachmann nor her spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, returned telephone calls or e-mails today seeking comment on Caplan’s remarks.

13,000 Diagnosed

Nearly 13,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer in 2011, and 4,290 will die from it, according to statistics from the American Cancer Society. The tumors are mainly caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, the virus targeted by Gardasil and London-based GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Cervarix. Cervarix was approved in 2009 in the U.S.

“Is this is a bit of gimmick?,” Caplan said. “Yes. But it’s to make the point that you don’t want young women to not get this vaccine because their mothers are afraid of it.”

Merck, in a Sept. 13 statement after Bachmann’s comments, said the safety and efficacy of the drug was established in clinical trials before its approval and the shot has been given to “millions of girls around the world.”

“Leading national and international health organizations actively monitor and evaluate the HPV vaccine and they continue to recommend its use,” Merck said in the statement.

Side Effect

The most common side effect of Gardasil is fainting after getting the injection, followed by skin irritation and dizziness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a study published in August 2009.

Perry received at least $23,500 in campaign contributions from Whitehouse, New Jersey-based Merck, including $5,000 in 2006, the year before he ordered girls throughout the state to get vaccinated. Merck also has donated about $500,000 to the Republican Governors Association, a group which Perry headed twice and has been among his most generous campaign donors.

Ultimately, girls in Texas were never required to be immunized against the sexually transmitted infection. While Perry issued an executive order in 2007 that Texas girls get the vaccine, the state legislature didn’t agree with Perry and overturned his order. The mandate was never implemented.

Perry said his goal was saving lives by reducing cases of cervical cancer and Gardasil was the only such medicine on the market at the time of his order.

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