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Fact Check: No evidence to suggest HPV vaccine causes 'mental retardation'

There’s long been a prominent debate in the autism community over vaccines and whether they cause the disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no evidence to support that fear. And diseases long thought to be wiped out in the U.S., like measles, for example, have made a comeback because of parents who have refused to inoculate their children.

This morning, as reported earlier, Michele Bachmann went even further, lending credence to a notion that Gardasil -- used in vaccines to prevent HPV, which can cause cervical cancer -- can cause mental retardation.

“I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate,” Bachmann said. “She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.”

Bachmann was using this in an attack on Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had signed an executive order mandating that girls get the vaccine. And there are certainly questions over why Perry signed the order. His former chief of staff Mike Toomey, as the Washington Post points out, "was working at the time as an Austin-based lobbyist for Merck, which was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar campaign to persuade states to make the vaccine mandatory."

But there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine causes mental retardation.

The CDC directed First Read to the side effects page for Gardasil. They include pain, redness, or swelling in the arm where the shot was given, mild-to-moderate fever, headache, or fainting.

Not surprisingly, there was nothing on mental retardation.

CDC spokeswoman Rita Chappelle said in an email, “The Institute of Medicine released a report on August 25 looking at adverse events from vaccines, including HPV. Rare cases of anaphylaxis was the only type of adverse event seen with HPV vaccine.”

That's a severe allergic reaction.

And the Food and Drug Administration and CDC also reported: “Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) has also been reported in individuals following vaccination with Gardasil.  GBS is a rare neurological disorder that causes muscle weakness.  It occurs spontaneously in unvaccinated individuals after a variety of specific infections.  FDA and CDC have reviewed the reports of GBS that have been submitted to VAERS.  To date, there is no evidence that Gardasil has increased the rate of GBS above that expected in the population.  While we continue to carefully analyze all reports of GBS submitted to VAERS, the data do not currently suggest an association between Gardasil and GBS.”

The left and right have taken shots at Bachmann for her comments.

Slate’s Weigel:

That's quite the accusation, one that Ben Smith has already gotten a rebuttal to from the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership. The CDC has recommended Gardisil, warning that the only verified side-effect has been rare cases of blood clots and an immune system disorder. I'm not doubting that a woman came up to Bachmann and said this. News flash: Vaccine luddism is rather widespread (especially so in some affluent areas where moms listen to Oprah, according to research I've seen from Seth Mnookin), and just because a mother might say something like this does not mean it reflects what actually happened. The fact that it's Bachmann embracing this -- Bachmann, who has a habit of endorsing or "just asking questions" about dark theories that she's overheard -- is totally unsurprising.

Even conservative blog Free Republic:

Huh? “Mental retardation” typically takes place in a pre- or neo-natal event. Autism becomes apparent in the first couple of years of life — and primarily affects boys. Gardasil vaccinations take place among girls between 9-12 years of age. Even assuming that this anecdote is arguably true, it wouldn’t be either “mental retardation” or autism, but brain damage. …

The “mental retardation” argument is a rehash of the thoroughly discredited notion that vaccines containing thimerasol caused a rapid increase in diagnosed autism cases. That started with a badly-botched report in Lancet that allowed one researcher to manipulate a ridiculously small sample of twelve cases in order to reach far-sweeping conclusions about thimerasol. That preservative hasn’t been included in vaccines for years, at least not in the US, and the rate of autism diagnoses remain unchanged.

The most charitable analysis that can be offered in this case for Bachmann is that she got duped into repeating a vaccine-scare urban legend on national television. It looks more like Bachmann sensed that she had won a point and wanted to go in for the kill, didn’t bother to check the facts, and didn’t care that she was stoking an anti-vaccination paranoid conspiracy theory, either. Neither shines a particularly favorable light on Bachmann.

Ironically, Rick Perry, who had been accused by Jon Huntsman of being “anti science” said this to NBC’s Carrie Dann today:

"You heard the same arguments about giving our children protections from some of the childhood diseases, and they were autism was part of that. Now we've subsequently found out that was generated and not true.” He added: “I would suggest to you that this issue about Gardasil and making it available was about saving people's lives.”