Will Rick Perry's HPV hullabaloo increase vaccinations?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, back, tells Heather Burcham's story after introducing her at the Capitol in Austin, Monday, Feb. 19, 2007. Burcham, who suffers from terminal cervical cancer with months to live, came to Austin to testify in favor of the HPV immunization program for Texas school children. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
LM Otero

When Michelle Bachmann attacked Rick Perry in a debate earlier this month for signing an executive order that mandated girls in Texas get the HPV vaccine, Craig Wilson's phone began ringing off the hook.

Wilson, a Houston businessman, was close friends with Heather Burcham, the woman who struck up a friendship with Governor Perry after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is a sexually-transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer in women, and Burcham believed Perry's executive order would save girls from suffering like she had.

Burcham passed away in 2007. That same year, the Texas legislature overturned Perry's executive order before it was implemented. But with Perry leading in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination, the controversial issue - and Burcham's story - are once again front and center.

In last week's debate, Perry said Burcham contributed to his decision to support mandatory vaccines.

"I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had Stage 4 cervical cancer," Perry said. "I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office, talked to me about this program."

In fact, Perry met Burcham after he had already issued his executive order. But their friendship lasted until she passed away and Wilson says Burcham deeply impacted the governor.

"She was a girl who lived the life he was trying to prevent," Wilson said.

Wilson said Perry helped Burcham cross some goals off of her "bucket list," such as hunting and riding a motorcycle. Perry also visited Burcham at the hospice center where she spent the last weeks of her life.

In recent weeks, Wilson has recounted these details in numerous television and print interviews. A Republican who supports Perry's bid for president, Wilson said he has not been contacted by the governor's campaign. Instead, he said his family's motivation for speaking to the press is personal.

"I know [Heather] is in heaven and I know she is happy this is coming out again," Wilson said. "If all this garbage lets some family know about [the vaccine], it is all worth it."


Wilson and his wife, Lisa, have four daughters. They first met Burcham when they hired her as a babysitter. Two of their daughters have already been given the HPV vaccine, and he said he plans to vaccinate the other two when the time comes.

The Centers for Disease Control says HPV is the most common sexually-transmitted virus in the United States. The CDC estimates 50 percent of sexually-active people will contract HPV in their lifetimes. Merck, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the HPV vaccine, says the drug protects against the two types of HPV that cause 75 percent of cervical cancers cases.

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