Bioethicists Offer Reward For Proof On HPV Vaccine Claim

Sep 15, 2011
Originally published on October 3, 2011 10:57 am

Even as Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann backs off some from an inflammatory claim that a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer led to mental retardation in a young girl, two bioethicists are turning up the heat.

Yes, the leading group of pediatricians in this country slammed Bachmann and said "there is absolutely no scientific validity" to statements that the vaccine against human papilloma virus is dangerous or causes retardation.

And the Minnesota Republican has conceded she's not a medical professional, saying in a radio interview: "I am not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician. All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me last night at the debate."

But Dr. Steven Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, has ponied up $1,000 if the mother Bachmann talked about can produce medical proof that her daughter suffered mental retardation from the HPV vaccine, the Star Tribune reports. "These types of messages in this climate have the capacity to do enormous public health harm," Miles told the paper. "It's an extremely serious claim and it deserves to be analyzed."

And Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania has placed what amounts to a $10,000 bet on the issue. He, too, wants proof of the claim and described his wager with Bachmann on Twitter:

No word yet on whether she has accepted the challenge.

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Michele Bachmann is attacking Rick Perry over his past support for the HPV vaccine. It protects girls and women against infections that can cause cervical cancer. This week, Bachmann slammed the vaccine in a debate. And then afterwards, questioned its safety, speaking here on Fox News.


NORRIS: It comes with some very significant consequences. There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight, after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine. There are very dangerous...

NORRIS: That point about mental retardation is what made Steve Miles jump into action. He's a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. And he's offering $1,000 for medical proof to confirm the claim Bachmann mentioned. And Dr. Miles joins us now from his home in Minneapolis. Welcome to the program.

D: Thank you for having me, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, this is a rather extraordinary measure. Why did you decide it was necessary to put up a bounty for this medical information?

MILES: Well, actually, what I'm offering is $1,000 for a properly signed medical release form so that these documents can be reviewed by highly qualified neurologists to see if this claim is true. I think the claim is very important because women will make important health decisions based on the idea that mental retardation may be a side effect of this, which there's no evidence so far that it is.

NORRIS: Well, I want to ask you about that. And speaking as a medical professional and basing your answer on medical science, is there any evidence that the HPV vaccine could cause mental impairment, retardation or any kind of cognitive problems?

MILES: Nothing has shown up in the studies so far. If you compare people who get the vaccine with those who don't, there's no increased evidence of any kind of brain injury.

NORRIS: Are there any side effects?

MILES: Yes, there are side effects. There's the local reaction in the arms. There's fainting and so forth. But when you look at things like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis or seizures or blood clots and you compare people who get the vaccine and who get a placebo or who get a different vaccine, there's no increased risk.

NORRIS: This vaccine was somewhat controversial when it was first introduced. The HPV vaccine is now back in the news. And I'm wondering how this could affect the way people think about this relatively new vaccine.

MILES: If we had a vaccine that would prevent a nonsexually caused cancer that affected 10,000 women a year, this would be a no-brainer. This controversy over the HPV vaccine is about the sexual politics in the United States. It is not about the medicine.

NORRIS: Your reaction to people who say this is all a bit of a stunt?

MILES: It's not a stunt. The stunt, if any here, was making a public health announcement of serious importance that can affect a huge vaccination campaign, using unvetted information that was casually acquired from a stranger. We don't make public health policy that way. You know, what happened here was yelling fire in a crowded theater. And what I'm trying to do is to restore credibility to the medical facts surrounding this vaccine.

NORRIS: Steve Miles is a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Miles, thank you very much.

MILES: Thank you.

NORRIS: We contacted the Bachmann campaign about Dr. Miles' challenge, and there was no comment. Also, another bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, has upped the ante. He's offering Michele Bachmann $10,000. In a tweet, Kaplan says Bachmann has one week to, quote, "produce her victim." If she does, he will put that $10,000 toward a charity of her choice. If not, he writes: She pays 10,000 to a pro-vaccine group. And no comment from the campaign on that either. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.