From pipsqueak to power player: the growth of the anti-vaxxer movement

by | Apr 25, 2019 | Health Care, Policy

Taxpayer dollars and precious legislative time are being spent as Texas lawmakers prepare to debate four anti-vaccination bills that health experts say could threaten public health.

And while there’s no guarantee that these bills will come to pass, their existence is proof that anti-science ideas can find a home in the Republican-dominated Texas legislature – so long as a small group of organized individuals tries hard enough.

State of play in Texas

One of the laws up for review by the House Committee on Public Health is House Bill 4418. Authored by House Freedom Caucus member Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, the bill would make it easier for parents to acquire vaccine exemptions for their children.

That’s an unsettling prospect in a state where the number of school children with conscientious vaccine exemptions has jumped 460 percent in 10 years, from roughly 10,400 in 2007 to 56,700 in 2017, the latest year of Texas Department of State Health Services data.

Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the department, told the Texas Signal those figures represent about 1 percent of school children in Texas.

“Generally speaking, immunization rates are high in Texas,” he said. “But we know there are communities, sort of a gathering of like minded individuals in schools, churches or towns where rates are significantly lower.”

He said the department makes an effort to inform them and other Texans in a statewide effort through campaigns, but said the department doesn’t focus on the anti-vaccine movement specifically.

“We communicate that it’s important to protect young children, but I think we also recognize there’s a reality that the state of Texas is not going to change some people’s minds, but it’s not something we give up on,” Van Deusen said.

As of yet, Texas isn’t in any danger of a statewide disease outbreak. But in areas with particularly low vaccination rates the effects are already being seen. Texas is one of many states in the U.S. fighting measles this year, a disease that was virtually eliminated 19 years ago but is now making a comeback because of increased international travel and “pockets of unvaccinated people,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Media power

Anti-vaccine parents and groups are prolific with social media to get their message out and active in politics.

“Social media has given [anti-vaccine groups] a national presence,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a national expert on vaccines at Baylor College of Medicine, told the Daily Beast. “Right now you might call it a media empire—you have almost 500 anti-vaccine websites.”

Dr. Dan Salmon, the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at John Hopkins, believes the mainstream media is also part of the problem.

“For more than a decade, every media outlet ran the same type of story,” he told us. “It starts off showing Little Johnny as a happy and healthy child, but after getting a vaccine, he’s starts acting oddly. Then they have a medical expert talk about the evidence and how vaccines don’t cause autism. Then it goes to some crackpot who says the opposite, and ends with the boy’s mother saying ‘I know what happened to my child.’”

Texas’ uptick in unvaccinated children isn’t just a problem for the Lone Star State.

In February, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said states engaging in wide vaccine exceptions pose a threat to the entire country. The FDA chief even went as far to say these states may “force the hand of the federal health agencies” if they fail to make changes.

In other words, if Texas doesn’t buck the trend with decreasing immunization rates, the government is going to have to clean up the mess— in a state that prides itself on being independent.

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