Rick Perry's HPV vaccine problem

Rick Perry is in a political bind over ordering girls to receive injections to protect against a sexually transmitted disease. The controversy is of special interest to tea party and social conservatives.

Jill Nance/News & Daily Advance/AP
Jerry Falwell Jr., left, and Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry converse before the start of convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry finds himself in a political bind over his effort to make middle-school girls receive injections to protect against a sexually transmitted disease.

As a result, the feisty GOP presidential front-runner not known for backing down from controversial positions (think Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”) has acknowledged that he made a mistake in issuing the unilateral order rather than working through the Texas Legislature.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently,” Governor Perry said during Monday night’s GOP candidates’ debate co-hosted by CNN and the Tea Party Express.

Perry’s political dilemma is obvious: He’s the only governor to have issued an executive order mandating the vaccine for girls. Virginia is the only other state with the requirement, and there’s a legislative effort there to repeal it.

The controversy is of special interest to tea-party and social conservatives. It touches on government mandates, parental rights, the suggestion that young girls may be sexually active, and the influence of special interests on politicians and the issues they push.

Presidential contender Michele Bachmann, struggling to regain her momentum among tea partyers, quickly pounced on the issue.

"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong,” she said during the debate Monday night.

Ms. Bachmann also criticized Perry for what she later called “crony capitalism” – receiving campaign contributions from drugmaker Merck, manufacturer of the Gardasil product designed to prevent the HPV virus linked to cervical cancer.

"If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended," Perry responded, suggesting that any campaign contributions from the drug manufacturer had been inconsequential.

But the Washington Post reported this week that Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns in fact received nearly $30,000 from Merck, most of it before he issued his 2007 executive order mandating the vaccine (which was later overridden by the Texas Legislature).

Citing data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the Post also reports that “Merck and its subsidiaries have also given more than $380,000 to the Republican Governors Association (RGA) since 2006, the year that Perry began to play a prominent role in the Washington-based group.”

It’s also been noted that Perry’s former chief of staff (who now does fundraising for Perry’s presidential campaign) was working as a lobbyist for the drugmaker at the time the Texas governor pushed to make the HPV vaccine mandatory for 11- and 12-year-old girls.

A look at the record among states shows why it’s such a controversial issue.

In 2006, the national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended routine vaccination against HPV for girls between ages 11 and 12.

“The debate in states has centered – in part – around school vaccine requirements, which are determined by individual states,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “Some states grant regulatory bodies, like the Board of Health, the power to require vaccines, but the legislature must still provide funding.”

“Some people who support availability of the vaccine do not support a school mandate, citing concerns about the drug's cost, safety, and parents' rights to refuse,” reports the NCSL. “Still others may have moral objections related to a vaccine mandate for a sexually transmitted disease. Financing is another concern: if states make the vaccine mandatory, they must also address funding issues, including for Medicaid and SCHIP [State Children's Health Insurance Program] coverage and youth who are uninsured, and whether to require coverage by insurance plans. This has caused some to push for further discussion and debate about whether or not to require the vaccine.”

Since 2006, 41 state legislatures and the District of Columbia have introduced laws related to promoting or requiring insurance coverage for the HPV vaccination, reports the Associated Press, but only Virginia and the District of Columbia have laws requiring it. Even in Virginia, a bill would repeal the HPV vaccination requirement for female children.

Though Bachmann took the lead among Republican presidential candidates in criticizing Perry on the HPV vaccination, she, too ,got herself in a bit of bind on the issue. Medical groups this week said Bachmann was wrong to suggest that the anti-HPV drug could cause “mental retardation.”

“There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement,” Dr. O. Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement Tuesday. “Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.”

But the focus of the issue remains on Perry.

"If there's one thing that Governor Perry is going to have to deal with it's the mandate for HPV," Tea Party Express chairman Amy Kremer told the AP. She credited Perry for publicly admitting a mistake but added: "I don't think this is the last we've heard of it."

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