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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

More Bad Medicine in the Perry Vaccine Saga

A pro-Michele Bachmann ad claims that “doctors opposed [Rick] Perry’s order [to inject girls with HPV vaccine] for safety reasons.” But the pediatrician cited by the sponsor says the ad doesn’t reflect his views accurately. “At the time, my position was that the vaccine was safe and effective,” he told FactCheck.org. Although he had reservations about a government mandate, he was personally recommending the vaccine for all 11- and 12-year-old girls, the doctor told us.

Furthermore, the ad overreaches when it says that “Perry’s wife had worked for the company that makes the vaccine.” Anita Perry worked part time for a public relations firm that Merck hired to promote a public education campaign for osteoporosis screenings — 10 years before Perry’s decision to issue his executive order.

Perry’s foes continue to botch an otherwise ripe attack on Perry regarding his controversial 2007 executive order requiring 11- and 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine designed to prevent a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. The Texas Legislature beat back Perry’s order, and Perry has since admitted he made a mistake by not running it through the Legislature first. Moreover, there is plenty of fodder for Bachmann’s suggestion that Perry’s decision smacks of “crony capitalism.” Perry has received more than $26,000 from Merck in gubernatorial campaign contributions over the years. And Perry’s former chief of staff became a lobbyist for Merck.

But Bachmann’s attacks have backfired a bit due to her medically unsubstantiated claims that the vaccine is “potentially dangerous,” as well as her repeated retelling of an anecdote in which a mother said the vaccine caused her daughter to suffer mental retardation.

Did Doctors Have Safety Concerns?

In TV ads running on Fox News in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Keep Conservatives United, a pro-Bachmann super PAC, offers two new lines of attack in the ongoing dissection of Perry’s executive order. On its website, Keep Conservatives United acknowledges that “doctors affirm Merck’s HPV vaccine is safe today.” But back when Perry issued his order, the ad states, “doctors opposed Perry’s order for safety reasons.”

To underpin that claim, the ad features a pullout quote from Dr. Joseph A. Bocchini in a March 5, 2007, National Review article: “It would be wise to wait until we have additional information about the safety of the vaccine.”

Bocchini is chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center – Shreveport. He is also a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and chairs the ACIP’s HPV working group. Bocchini was among those who chastised Bachmann’s “potentially unsafe” comments last week, saying, “The evidence is that there is no serious risk to the use of this vaccine.”

But did he once oppose Perry’s mandate for safety reasons? That’s only half right, Bocchini told us via email:

Bocchini: Neither the ad nor the story published in 2007 accurately reflect my position at the time.

At the time, my position was that the vaccine was safe and effective. In fact, my recommendation at that time was that all girls 11-12 should receive the vaccine as part of their routine immunization panel and that girls and young women from 13 through 26 years of age should also receive the vaccine.

At the time of the interview I indicated that additional data on safety, duration of immunity, change in epidemiology of HPV infection and whether most girls in the recommended age group were receiving the vaccine would be considerations for whether a mandate would be indicated. That is why I said that it was too early. Only a portion of my statements was published in the story, which incorrectly implied that I was concerned about safety.

Several stories at the time confirm Bocchini’s position that he recommended the HPV vaccine for female patients ages 11 to 26. That was also the recommendation of CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices after the FDA approved — following extensive review and study — Merck’s Gardasil in 2006 for use in females ages 9 to 26 to protect against cervical, vulvar and vaginal cancers caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) and genital warts caused by HPV. Stories at the time also note that organizations such as the Texas Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly recommended use of the vaccine, even as they declined to endorse a mandate.

Perry’s Wife Part of the Cronyism Problem?

To back up her suggestion that crony capitalism influenced Perry’s decision, Bachmann has repeatedly pointed out that Perry’s onetime chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck when Perry made his decision to issue the executive order. Toomey recently cofounded a super PAC called Make Us Great Again, which is backing Perry’s presidential bid.

But the Keep Conservatives United ad takes the case one step further, claiming the cronyism extends to Perry’s own house.

Keep Conservatives United ad: Even worse, Rick Perry’s wife had worked for the company that makes the vaccine.

As evidence, Keep Conservatives United cites a 2000 story in the Austin Chronicle, which notes that in the mid-1990s — when Perry was the state’s agriculture commissioner — his wife, Anita, worked for a PR firm, MEM Hubble Communications Inc., and was tapped to launch a public education campaign for osteoporosis screenings for Merck.

We spoke to Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who was a partner of MEM Hubble, and he confirmed that Perry worked on the Merck campaign to promote osteoporosis screenings. But she was not, as the ad implies, a Merck employee. She was a part-time,  salaried employee of MEM Hubble Communications, he said, and was assigned the project due to her background in nursing. Merck was not an ongoing client for the firm, and her performance on the project had no bearing on her pay, he said. Anita Perry left the PR company when her husband decided to run for lieutenant governor.

Any suggestion that this assignment in the mid-1990s may have influenced Perry’s decision on the HPV vaccine 10 years later is “preposterous,” Miller said. “It’s a crazy, nutty link, irrational and wrong,” he said.

On the other hand, Miller finds it easy to believe Toomey lobbied his former boss. Toomey and Perry served together in the state Legislature, Miller said, and were “fellow travelers” with similar political ideals.

“It’s very easy for me to see Mike [Toomey] saying, ‘My client’s got this great vaccine.’… It’s easy for me to see Mike making that pitch,” Miller said.

During the Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 22, Perry tried to turn the tables on Bachmann’s lobbying claims.

Perry, Sept. 22: I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer. I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office She talked to me about this program. I readily admitted we should have had an opt-in, but I don’t know what part of opt out most parents don’t get and the fact is I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life as a governor as a president of the United States.

But that, too, was a stretch. As ABC News pointed out shortly after the debate, Perry didn’t actually meet the woman until after he’d issued his executive order.

— Robert Farley