Texas state Representative Bill Zedler doesn’t understand the fuss over the resurgence of infectious diseases. “When I grew up, I had a lot of these illnesses,” he said, listing measles, mumps and chickenpox. “They wanted me to stay at home. But as far as being sick in bed, it wasn’t anything like that,” said Zedler, an outspoken anti-vaxxer and longtime member of the House Public Health Committee who has worked in the health-care industry. The only lawmaker with an A++ rating from Texans for Vaccine Choice, he was born in 1943, two decades before the measles vaccine was developed. During Zedler’s childhood, about 450 people died of measles each year in the United States, 48,000 were hospitalized and a few million more got the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963 virtually eliminated measles in the United States by 2000.
“They want to say people are dying of measles. Yeah, in third-world countries they’re dying of measles,” Zedler said, shaking his head. “Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying in America.” Zedler says he’s adamantly in favor of “freedom of conscience” and against mandatory vaccination. “This is not the Soviet Union, you know.”
Health officials blame the recent uptick in highly contagious diseases on a growing anti-vaxxer movement and the spread of misinformation about the safety of vaccines. (The anti-vaxxer wife of the White House communications director this month tweeted “Bring back our #ChildhoodDiseases they keep you healthy & fight cancer.”)
Texas has had eight confirmed cases of measles so far this year, and in 2017, mumps cases reached a 20-year high. Yet now Zedler and other anti-vaccine lawmakers want to make it even easier to opt out of childhood vaccinations, and they’re trying to keep the public from accessing information about exemption rates.
A bill filed in the Texas Legislature this month by Representative Matt Krause, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, would make it easier for parents to request vaccine exemptions. A similar version was left pending after a House Public Health Committee hearing in 2017, but Krause’s new bill would go further, explicitly preventing the state health department from tracking the number of exemptions. Even though the exemption data doesn’t include anything that could identify individual students and is only available at the school district level, Krause and Zedler point to fears among anti-vaxxers that they will be tracked and bullied. “We’ve seen instances in California, stuff like that, where they start hunting people down,” Zedler said.
Public health officials say the proposal would curb their ability to identify and stop disease outbreaks, and parents of immunocompromised kids would have even less information to decide where to send their children to school.
“This is the modus operandi for anti-vaxxers in Texas: to promote exemptions, obfuscate and minimize transparency,” said Peter Hotez, a leading vaccine scientist and dean for the National School for Tropical Medicine at Baylor Medical School. “To do this in the middle of a measles outbreak in Texas is especially unconscionable.”
In the first month and a half of this year, there were 127 confirmed measles cases in the United States, mostly among unvaccinated people. Eight cases have been confirmed in Texas, where the number of kids with “conscience” exemptions surged from about 2,300 in 2003 to nearly 53,000 in 2017. The state had nine measles cases total in 2018 and one in 2017.
Krause, who is also backed by Texans for Vaccine Choice, argues that his legislation merely streamlines the process for parents who will obtain the exemptions anyway. He dismissed the many concerns raised by medical professionals last session. “They did a very good job of painting the worst-case scenario,” Krause told the Observer. “I’m not so sure those fears are founded.”
Krause acknowledged that he has already fielded concerns about his bill, in particular the clause preventing the state from tracking vaccine exemptions. He said he would be willing to scrap that language “if Texans for Vaccine Choice or some other vaccine choice groups or other folks from the medical community say that’s a bad idea.” Texans for Vaccine Choice did not respond to a request for comment.
Not all Republicans are comfortable with the attacks on vaccines. “I don’t understand the logic,” said state Senator Kel Seliger of Krause’s bill. “There’s nothing in the information currently available that IDs which individual kids are vaccinated, so what’s the concern?” Seliger refiled a bill this session that would make information on vaccine rates more accessible, requiring the health department to publicly post exemption rates by school. “Parents have the right to know information that concerns their kids’ health,” he said. The House version of Seliger’s bill was the only other vaccine-related legislation to get a committee hearing last session, though it was never considered on the floor.
This session, the Legislature could be headed toward another stalemate. Representative J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, a doctor who filed the companion bill to Seliger’s last session, told the Observer in 2017 that he’d like to see vaccine exemptions narrowed, but “It’ll take the death of innocent children before we can eliminate this exemption of conscience.”