Rick Perry’s Legacy: Making It Easier for Texas Parents to Opt-Out of Vaccines

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The measles outbreak that began in Disneyland in December is continuing to spread across the country, with a cluster of children in a Chicago daycare becoming the latest victims of the preventable infectious disease. Fortunately, Texas has largely been spared thus far. There is currently only one case of measles in Texas, and it is not suspected to be related to the Disneyland outbreak.

Meanwhile, as he does with most things, former governor Rick Perry is using the measles outbreak to brag about his record in Texas in preparation for his future presidential campaign. In a statement this week, his spokesman Travis Considine said that Perry “strongly believes in protecting life and has sought to improve the health and well-being of Texans in a variety of ways, including increased immunization rates.”

And, as is true of most things Rick Perry says about his record as governor, that claim isn’t exactly correct.

It’s true that the number of vaccinated children in Texas has grown immensely over the past ten years. But so has the number of children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them due to reasons of “conscience”, and that is all thanks to Rick Perry.

Before 2003, the only reason that parents could opt their children out of vaccines was due to religious objections. But that year, Rick Perry signed the bill that reorganized the state’s health and human services infrastructure, which happened to include new allowances for opting out of vaccines. According to the new law, parents can choose not to vaccinate their children “for reasons of conscience, including a religious belief,” creating a much wider opening to allow parents to forego vaccinating their children.

Since Perry signed that law, the number of children who are unvaccinated due to “reasons of conscience” has skyrocketed.

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(Source: Texas Department of State Health Services, via the Dallas Morning News)

Perry’s spokesman told The Daily Beast that the reason why Perry signed a law that went against his beliefs regarding vaccinations was because the Texas Constitution did not give him “the power to remove the clause in this instance.”

Whatever Perry’s reasoning may have been, the ultimate effect is that Texans are more susceptible to preventable infectious diseases. The problem is that when large numbers of people choose not to vaccinate, it damages herd immunity. As the Vaccine Knowledge Project from Oxford University explains:

    “When a high percentage of the population is vaccinated, it is difficult for infectious diseases to spread because there are not many people who can be infected. For example, if someone with measles is surrounded by people who are vaccinated against measles, the disease cannot easily be passed on to anyone, and it will quickly disappear again. This is called ‘herd immunity’, and it gives protection to vulnerable people such as newborn babies, elderly people and those who are too sick to be vaccinated.”

Herd immunity protects those who are most susceptible to illness. This includes people with compromised immune systems, those on chemotherapy, people with HIV, newborns who are too young to be vaccinated, and the elderly. When parents choose not to vaccinate their children, they are also actively choosing to put society’s most vulnerable at risk of infectious diseases.

Of course, these parents are also choosing to put their own children at risk of completely preventable diseases. Because vaccines have been so successful, most of these parents don’t have the memory of seeing how devastating these infectious diseases can be, and so they greatly underestimate the risks they are placing on their own children. Complications from measles can cause pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause infants to get pneumonia, convulsions, and even stop breathing, while teens and adults are susceptible to broken ribs from the force of coughing. And skipping vaccines can cause harm to future generations too–rubella (German measles) may be a relatively mild infection in adults, but if a pregnant woman is infected, her baby will face deafness, mental retardation, and heart defects.

Though Texas has been spared by this measles outbreak so far, over 20 people were infected by a measles outbreak in north Texas in 2013. And thanks to Rick Perry’s actions as governor, we may very well be seeing more preventable outbreaks in the future. It’s yet another way that Perry’s 14 years as governor have left Texans worse off than ever before.


About Author

Katie Singh

Katie grew up in Austin and has been involved in Texas politics since 2004. She has been a part of several campaigns, from state house races to working at President Obama's campaign headquarters in 2012. She loves public policy, public health, and tacos. Katie tweets from @kasingh19.

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