TIP In The News


Small anti-vaccine PAC has outsize clout in Texas politics

By Renuka Rayasam | September 01, 2017

Originally published in the Politico

AUSTIN, Texas — A two-year-old political action committee is trying to turn childhood vaccines into a wedge issue in state Republican primaries, by scoring lawmakers on efforts to allow parents to claim broader exemptions from mandatory childhood vaccinations.

Texans for Vaccine Choice casts the effort as an exercise in civil liberties and parental choice. But its direct involvement in political races could tip a sensitive debate that saw state legislators gridlock on a series of vaccine safety measures this year. Its messaging echoes that of President Donald Trump, who aired widely debunked claims linking vaccines to autism during his presidential campaign and weighed creating a commission to study vaccine safety that has yet to materialize.

The PAC aims to raise funds and mobilize support for conservative vaccine skeptics in state primary races — a departure from like-minded groups that to date have largely confined their activities to lobbying and advocacy.

"I'm just a mom, but I'm very passionate about this topic," said Executive Director Jackie Schlegel. "We're excited as an organization to continue to advance."

Schlegel's group, with little prior political experience, successfully thwarted bills in the last two legislative sessions that would have tightened criteria for claiming immunization exemptions, promoted vaccinations for children in foster care and expanded access to the state's confidential immunization registry, among other things. The group used a Facebook page to rally parents opposed to mandatory vaccinations while sending representatives to testify at public hearings and meet with lawmakers.

Texans for Vaccine Choice formed in response to a 2015 bill from Dallas state Rep. Jason Villalba to tighten exemptions in the state's vaccine requirements. It rallied forces to defeat the legislation, then supported Villalba's unsuccessful Republican primary challenger last year.

"When we do have vaccination legislation, people are wary of it because they don't want to be tagged as anti-liberty and don't want to be attacked," said Villalba, a three-term lawmaker who acknowledges the group ate into his margin of victory and intimidated lawmakers who might otherwise support efforts to boost immunization rates.

Every state allows some exemptions from childhood vaccinations on medical or religious grounds. Texas in 2003 broadened its criteria by letting parents opt out for philosophical reasons — a catchall category now in use in 18 states.

Rekha Lakshmanan, director of advocacy and policy at the Immunization Partnership, which aims to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases, said Villalba's experience caught the attention of other GOP lawmakers concerned about vaccines becoming a "litmus test" and triggering primary challengers.

The wariness was evident during the recently concluded legislative session. Lawmakers failed to advance measures to ease vaccination requirements. But they similarly balked at an effort that would have restricted the ability to claim a philosophical exemption and promoted more transparency around vaccination rates, which is deemed important for parents of children on chemotherapy and with other medical conditions.

"Lawmakers are kind of thinking very myopically and have tunnel vision," said Lakshmanan. "They are worried about being primaried because of where they stand on this."

Texans for Vaccine Choice uses social media to promote a "Friday Fives" campaign highlighting anti-vaccine lawmakers asking supporters to donate $5. Beneficiaries have mostly been ultra-conservative lawmakers, including Tom Oliverson, a practicing anesthesiologist who serves in the state House.

The group plans to publish a key votes scorecard in the next few weeks. 

While Texas doesn't limit how much PACs can contribute in state races, most of Texans for Vaccine Choice's donations have been under $1,000, according to Jason Sabo, founder of Frontera Strategy, a lobby group.

Texans for Vaccine Choice's financial reports haven't been made public yet, and the group refused to make them available.

The group's tactics mark a major shift from Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education, a nonprofit formed in the late 1990s that was instrumental in convincing lawmakers to widen Texas' vaccine exemption requirements in 2003 and organizing the state legislature to overturn then-Gov. Rick Perry's executive order mandating the HPV vaccine in 2007. The vaccine protects against cancers caused by human papillomavirus.

"We don't try and affect any political races," said PROVE founder Dawn Richardson. "Some of the younger, newer people are more divisive politically."

The momentum concerns public health advocates worried about disease outbreak. In April, the state health department issued a warning about a resurgence of mumps. Though the agency didn't cite a drop-off in immunizations as a cause, it said the state is experiencing the highest incidence of mumps in 22 years.

In parts of the state, including Denton and Austin, vaccine exemption rates at some schools have exceeded 30 percent. Researchers say that outbreak risks grow when vaccination rates fall below 90 to 95 percent.

In California, a 2015 measles outbreak in Disneyland broke a similarly gridlocked situation, prompting state lawmakers to approve a law, CA SB277 (15R), that nixed the state's "personal belief" exemption.

The percentage of Texas school parents opting out of one or more vaccines for their children for philosophical or religious reasons has more than doubled from nearly half of 1 percent in the 2010 school year to almost 1 percent last school year, according to the state health department. As of last year, 45,000 children didn't get vaccinated for non-medical reasons — a 19-fold increase from 2003, when Texas first broadened the exemption, according to research from Peter Hotez, professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine.

The state health department is launching a $1.8 million campaign to promote childhood immunizations against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and other diseases, according to Chris Van Deusen, media relations director at the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But Hotez worries that such efforts won't be effective unless state lawmakers get rid of the state's philosophical exemption.

"Nobody seems to have any appetite to stem this flow," said Hotez, also director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. "You are watching this train come down the tracks two miles away, and there is nothing you can do to stop it."

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