September 19, 2011
Rep. Michele Bachmann claims gubernatorial back-scratching was Rick Perry’s motivation behind an “executive order” to vaccinate all female children in Texas for HPV prior to sixth grade admission. Merck & Co launched Gardasil in June of 2006, the first vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Simultaneously, Merck launched a behind-the-scenes campaign lobbying state legislatures to require 11 and 12 year old girls to get the three-dose vaccine as a requirement for school attendance.
AP reported that Merck was deceptively funneling money for its state-mandated campaign through Women in Government, an advocacy group made up of female state legislators across the country. Legislatures in roughly 20 states had introduced measures that would mandate girls have the vaccine to attend school but none had passed as of February 2, 2007, the date Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued an “executive order” mandating “the age appropriate vaccination of all female children for HPV prior to admission to the sixth grade.” “Executive Orders” are controversial because they allow governors to act unilaterally and make major decisions, even law, without legislative approval. They take effect with the same legal weight as a law passed by the legislature.
Bachmann re-ignited the “executive order” controversy last Tuesday during the Republican presidential debate striking a nerve that Perry attempted to brush off by saying that he was “offended” at the suggestion that he could be bought for a mere $5,000 contribution. Apparently, Perry’s attempt to minimize Bachmann’s “crony capitalism” innuendo also led to a less than accurate representation according to Texas Ethics Commission filings which indicates he had received $28,500 in campaign contributions from Merck’s political action committee since 2001, not the mere $5,000 he acknowledged.
On September 15, 2011, responding to the allegation that it was “crony capitalism” that led to Gov. Perry signing the questioned executive order and hoping to offer insight into where the governor stands on the HPV controversy, the governor’s friends Craig and Lisa Wilson came forward and agreed to be interviewed.
According to the Wilson’s, whose family are long time friends of Gov. Perry, it was with Craig’s help their friend Heather Burcham, who was dying from cervical cancer, approached Gov. Perry to let him know that she wanted to help in getting the word out on HPV. Wilson stated that it was after the governor had signed the executive order mandating the HPV vaccine and the controversy had ended.
The actual stage of the HPV “executive order” controversy is unclear however, as Mr. Wilson later told us that Heather had gone to Austin and testified before the committee to say that this should be one of the many shots required in the Texas school system.
Heather Burcham, who has since died from cervical cancer, reportedly had spent the last months of her life trying to make sure that other young women would get the HPV vaccine. Connected to what appears to be oxygen tubing, frail and speaking from her bed, the visually diminishing Heather Burcham who Craig Wilson said, believed that the HPV vaccine could have prevented her death, recorded a last day’s video plea in support of the HPV vaccine saying, “That if I could help one child, take this cancer away from one child, it would mean the world to me.”
Mr. Wilson did not tell us who had produced Heather’s last day’s video plea or whether it had been used to advance Merck’s HPV campaign and attempt to sway the Texas legislature who has since rescinded Perry’s executive order mandating the HPV vaccine.
After watching Heather’s last day’s video plea, Mr. Wilson told us that Heather was living proof of what they were trying to do. He believes that she would never have died of such a “horrific, horrific cancer” had she received the HPV vaccination.
Inconsistently, Lisa Wilson told us that Heather was “unable to testify for him [Perry] but he became a friend” and that Heather moved in about the same time that Perry “was pushing this vaccination.” She described the relationship between Heather and Rick Perry that followed their introduction saying that “he genuinely, genuinely cared about Heather.” Mrs. Wilson said “we saw that, I was shocked.” Stating that she had grown up around politicians, Lisa Wilson said, “I’ve just never met a man that was able to maintain that; to have that sort of time to spend with anyone, to care that much.”
According to Craig Wilson, Perry’s relationship with Heather occurred after the controversy was over stating “that there was no reason to for him to do anything with her.” Mr. Wilson went on to describe the last moments of Heather Burcham with Perry, who drove 3 hours from Austin to sit with her, hold her hand and just talk with her for probably 4 hours or “so long as she could handle it; she was very weak.” Craig Wilson said that the governor had no reason to be in Houston other than for Heather and “out of his own heart.”
When asked to address Michele Bachmann’s suggestion that Gov. Perry was trying to scratch the back of Mike Toomey, his former chief of staff who went on to work for Merck, Craig Wilson lamented that it was “a great measure of the man”—“based on what we saw this man do, based on the measure of his actions and not his words and how he treated her with such dignity and respect and how he just genuinely and honestly cared for her.”
During the entire interview the Wilson’s did not hesitate to vouch for Gov. Perry’s motivations claiming that they “know politicians and not all of them do this” referring to the dignity which they say Perry showed Heather Burcham.
As it turns out, Michele Bachman was right about the former staffer-turned-lobbyist Mike Toomey who, as noted, was Perry’s former chief of staff and a Merck lobbyist before and after he worked for Perry. Recently, Toomey co-founded a “super” political action committee that is expected to wage an expensive independent expenditure effort on Perry’s behalf in the 2012 presidential campaign.
The Merck vaccine “Gardasil”, is also controversial because of its price–$360 for the three doses required over a six month stretch. Dr. Anne Francis, who chairs an American Academy of Pediatrics committee, believes “that Merck’s timing was a little bit premature,” she said, “so soon after release, before we have a picture of whether there are going to be any untoward side effects.” Merck, in another drug roll-out case withdrew Vioxx from public use when serious side effects emerged only after it was in wide use. Dr. Francis said it would have been better to wait awhile before mandating Gardasil usage. Importantly, Dr. Francis was also concerned about requiring a vaccine for a disease that is not communicable and which does not have a big public health impact.