Immunization leader visits Laredo, discusses 2023 goals

| Dec 31 2022

Vaccines have become a popular medical and political tool in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One organization is aiming to make sure the importance of vaccines is heard next year, not just from an educational standpoint but an advocacy one as well. 

The Immunization Partnership is a state organization that advocates for public policies that increase immunization rates in Texas. Its executive director, Terri Burke, visited Laredo recently in efforts to talk about what the organization is and what its goals are in going into the new Texas State Legislative session in 2023.

According to Burke, there are both opportunities and many bills presenting a challenge to making immunization grow in the state. 

The Immunization Partnership has existed for 15 years, and Burke took control of the organization in the past year. Although its efforts are now to get as many people vaccinated as possible against COVID and other respiratory viruses, TIP actually started in efforts to get a statewide immunization registry to follow children as they began getting their immunization shots. 

“We got the registry but it is an opt-in not an opt-out, so you have to affirmatively say I want in and a lot of people and doctors don’t ask,” Burke said. “Senator (Judith) Zaffirini introduces a bill every single session to make it an opt-out system instead of an opt-in.”

Once the registry was formed in the state, the organization’s efforts then focused on educating the public about the importance of vaccinations and immunization. However, after the pandemic, she believes that this changed as it caused for them to become advocates as some considered COVID-19 vaccines not suitable for people. 

“Our goal is really to build up a cadre of vaccine champions and people who believe in vaccinations,” Burke said. “Because of COVID, anti-vaccination also bred over into the anti-childhood vaccines issue and it is dangerous. So we want people who do believe in vaccines to just speak up and just start talking about it. They should go to the school board meetings, the local health departments, city councils and such and really speak up about the importance of vaccines and public health.”

Burke states that these voices need to be heard, as not only is the anti-vaccine movement growing but many people are also becoming vaccine hesitant, as the state allows for vaccine exemptions to be easy to get for individuals. Nevertheless, she states that according to their data, Webb County is one of the best areas in the state with high vaccine rates for children. 

“I looked at the statistics for Webb County in terms of children’s vaccines and the people do a good job here, as almost 100% of school kids are fully vaccinated and it seems to be pretty good across the county,” Burke said.

Burke said that a physician from Brownsville highlights the fact that the Hispanic community – both generations living in the country and new migrants – all appreciate the importance of medicine, as they have that connection between the culture and health. 

She also underlined how the lack of access to medical resources and vaccines is another major problem. She believes that the public health structure of the state is “crumbling” and that Texas is not doing much to invest in it – ranking 40th in terms of public health spending. 

Burke said the legislature has currently seen three bills filed already that she calls scary, as they pertained to repealing the requirement for children to be vaccinated to go to school. Another bill suggests that the governor cannot have more than a 30-day health emergency order in place without the state legislature’s approval, and a third bill proposes that new drugs can’t be administered in Texas until after five years after the Federal Drug Administration has approved it. 

Burke says these are some of the main battles her advocacy organization will have in the coming year, as she suggests that the legislature is trying to fill in the role of actual health care workers and scientists who have better knowledge about diseases and health matters than those who just make policy. 

“We do not take a position on mandates, but we do say that employers and schools should have the right to determine their own policies of wellness,” Burke said. “So if they want to put a sign in front of their door that says you need to wear a mask, they should have the right to do that, and there are bills being proposed that would prohibit that. Those are the things that we are really concerned about.”

TIP also wants to focus in 2023 on protecting vaccination requirements and helping families keep their children current, helping increase equitable access to underserved communities and the disabled, and educating about vaccines in general and new ones coming up – the latter including a potential RSV vaccine that might begin testing soon. 

“I think it might sound goofy, but I wonder if RSV could be the thing that makes people appreciate the importance of vaccines, as people will see their 2 year old get it and it’s horrifying. Then you might be saying, ‘Where is the vaccine?’ and there isn’t one yet,” Burke said. “The problem is that we have two entire adult generations who have never seen these other diseases. However, people are going to see RSV and testify how horrible it is, and maybe that will make people think twice about vaccines.”

She said the lack of people not seeing diseases like mumps, polio and measles all shows why people have been disconnected with the importance of vaccines while also showcasing how effective they are in treating the diseases they target. 

“Those are diseases that have been wiped out,” Burke said. “I have a colleague that says that vaccines did our job too well – nobody thinks about these diseases that our vaccines protect us from, because they never seen them.”

Burke also states that her organization will focus on advocating for more public health dollars at the state level, as Texas has a large surplus. They will also continue to work to ensure counties and communities stay informed about the latest numbers of infectious diseases and also aim at making sure hospitals are not overflowing, not just because of more diseases but also to make sure that hospitals have the human resources to sustain the workflow. 

As the government continues to contemplate whether or not COVID-19 vaccines will have a cost in the future, Burke said there are always resources that people can use in efforts to get a vaccine such as Vaccines for Children, which pays for children’s vaccinations. There are also vaccines for adult programs, and she states that she expects the COVID-19 vaccine to be enrolled into both types of programs in the future.

She believes that the pandemic hurt all efforts about the importance of immunizations due to the rhetoric on vaccines and mandates but hopes that in a few years things will get better when it comes to looking at the importance of immunizations and all things that work for that common goal. 

“These are several long goals that I know we are not going to accomplish overnight, but I think and what I do hope is that we help people and begin to see that immunizations lead to good health,” Burke said. “With immunizations, we reduce illnesses. It is going to take a while, but I think that if we build this cadre of people to speak up, then in three to four legislations we should really begin to turn that tide.”