Op Ed: The power of immunizations
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle
It only takes one exposure to many vaccine-preventable diseases for illness to occur. For that very reason health care professionals take every possible chance to vaccinate. If an individual does not receive a needed vaccine on a visit to the doctor, it is known in medical circles as a "missed opportunity" - lost protection from potentially fatal, but preventable, diseases. Missed opportunities are unacceptable when so much is at stake.
Recently, Texas has seen the implications of a decade of missed opportunities to fully vaccinate our state's population. A North Texas measles outbreak started at a church whose pastor has a new respect for the preventive power of immunizations. Pertussis outbreaks continue in Texas with more than 2,600 cases reported as of October 2013. State health officials report that Texas is on track to have the most cases of pertussis in 50 years.
While great strides were made in the 2013 legislative session to improve immunizations, there were some simple yet effective changes that were not adopted. In session after session, legislators in Austin have debated modernizing the state's immunization registry to cut red tape and allow Texans easier access to basic shot records and more comprehensive care. This year, the state House of Representatives finally passed legislation to align the Texas immunization registry consent process with that of 47 other states. Sadly, the bill languished and died in the Senate. Policy decisions have an impact on immunization rates, and immunization rates determine how far and how fast diseases can spread.
As this fall's outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have reminded us, we can and must do more to protect ourselves and our communities. Public health officials have been clamoring for change for a decade and policy makers must follow the experts' lead. Right now, the Texas Legislature has two important opportunities - interim charges and the sunset review of the Texas Department of State Health Services - to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Texas immunization program. If Texas allows these to become missed opportunities, we will have failed to prevent potentially devastating outbreaks.
In the weeks to come, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and state House Speaker Joe Straus will release interim charges. Interim charges are the lists of priority topics the respective chambers' leaders ask their committees to study. Before next session, the committees will conduct hearings and draft a report on these interim charges. If theTexas Senate and House are serious about fighting vaccine-preventable diseases, Dewhurst and Straus could issue a joint charge to make policy recommendations for reducing future outbreaks.
Legislative leaders have another chance to reform immunization policies when the Texas Sunset Commission reviews the work of the Department of State Health Services. Every state agency goes through the sunset process once each decade to ensure that it is effectively fulfilling its functions. Although the health department is working hard to address the state's outbreaks and epidemics, more direction from the Texas Legislature is needed on how to improve vaccination rates and modernize state systems.
The Texas Legislature and its leadership can continue to miss opportunities to reform our state's capacity to cut vaccine-preventable diseases. Or, legislators could take a more proactive approach to learn from this year's measles and pertussis outbreaks and take the steps necessary now to increase protection for all Texans.