The debate over vaccines during the Republican presidential debate last week illustrates an unfortunate American truism: Anything in politics that touches on sex is just a mess.Public health officials — and most sensible people — are flummoxed over how a vaccine that helps prevent cervical cancer has inspired fear that it encourages promiscuity. Even more perilous is the trend of parents opting out of vaccinating their children against infectious diseases in general, potentially erasing decades of public health improvements.Yet ill-informed or simply irresponsible public officials, like presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, directly or indirectly encourage it.The danger is playing out in real time in California this year. Whooping cough outbreaks are spiking, and school districts in San Francisco and Sacramento have begun turning away unvaccinated children.This preventable disease used to kill as many as 7,500 children a year, even more than polio. As fewer children are vaccinated, its spread will resume.The Centers for Disease Control reports that the death rate for nine diseases has fallen by 90 percent since vaccines were approved to prevent them. Afflictions such as hepatitis, chickenpox, mumps, tetanus and diphtheria once caused untold suffering.Because occurrences now are few, some parents feel they can skip the shots.The CDC says more than 40 percent of today's parents at some time have declined or delayed giving their child vaccinations. No wonder infectious diseases are making a comeback.At last week's debate, Bachmann chastised Gov. Rick Perry's attempt to require Gardasil shots for young girls in Texas to fight cervical cancer.Bachmann claimed the vaccination has “dangerous side effects.” The next day on NBC's “Today Show,” she said a woman had told her the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination had caused her daughter's mental retardation.The American Academy of Pediatrics says there is “absolutely no scientific validity” to this claim. More than 35 million doses have been given with no serious side effects. But Bachmann's myth is likely to go viral.Cervical cancer claims the lives of 4,000 women every year.About 12,000 additional women undergo painful treatment for HPV that carries the risk of making them infertile.Bachmann and others argue that parents should decide whether or not their children are vaccinated for HPV — partly because of the fear that the vaccination gives girls a false sense of security about the safety of sexual intercourse. That loony concept is something a responsible parent easily could dispel.Public health should not be a partisan issue. Besides the toll in human suffering and death, epidemics cost a fortune in tax dollars and in lost economic productivity.Political leaders everywhere should be explaining the medical benefits of safe vaccinations — including shots to combat cancer-causing HPV.