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Storm over Bachmann's HPV vaccine comments continues to brew

Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Michele Bachmann unleashed a storm of controversy and stirred tinfoil hat-wearers everywhere this week when she claimed that a vaccine to guard against cervical cancer is dangerous and could even cause mental retardation.

Ms. Bachmann made the comments during a Republican debate held this week. Later, she said she was approached by a tearful mother who claims the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine caused her daughter to be mentally retarded.

Now, at least two medical experts are offering $1,000 and $10,000 (U.S.) each for Ms. Bachmann to produce the woman and provide solid proof the vaccine caused mental retardation.

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The HPV vaccine has become a flashpoint because Ms. Bachmann's opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, issued an executive order in 2007 for young girls to receive a vaccine protecting them from certain strains of human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection, which can lead to cervical cancer. The order was later overturned and didn't go into effect.

Mr. Perry has also received substantial donations from Merck, the maker of the Gardasil brand of the HPV vaccine.

The vaccine is already controversial because many religious and conservative groups say it encourages sexual activity among young people. Uptake of the vaccine has varied across Canada and the U.S., with many objecting to blanket programs aimed at adolescent girls. The vaccine has also been approved to prevent genital warts and HPV in boys and men.

While criticizing Mr. Perry over his donor list seems to be fair game, Ms. Bachmann's broad statements about the dangers of an effective, potentially life-saving, vaccine are being described by medical experts are irresponsible, misleading, and simply wrong. There are also very real fears that Ms. Bachmann's comments could do serious damage to efforts to encourage HPV vaccination.

The controversy raises important questions about what responsibility politicians should have when delving into matters they have no expertise in, such as health.

Do there need to be greater accountability measures in place to prevent politicians from spreading false information?

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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