Texas Tribune Festival panel discusses vaccination policies

Laura Zhang

On Saturday morning, panelists electrified the Santa Rita room in the Union with arguments for and against laws requiring parents to vaccinate their children.

Anna Dragsbaek, president and CEO of the Immunization Project, and Republican state representative Jason Villalba argued for mandatory vaccination in public schools.

Jackie Schlegel, director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, and Bill Zedler, another Republican state representative, argued for a family’s right to choose vaccination for their children.

The issue of the “opt-out policy,” which allows parents a way out of vaccinating their children, is that it will make communities more vulnerable to illnesses, according to Dragsbaek and Villalba.

“As a policy maker, what matters to me is the safety and well-being of my community, particularly the most vulnerable of my community: the newborns, the elderly, the immunocompromised folks,” Villalba said. “And all we’re trying to do is make it safer.”

When even one percent of the students in a public school is not vaccinated, this interrupts their herd immunity, according to Dragsbaek. Herd immunity describes a population’s collective immunity because a certain proportion is already resistant. 

On the other side, Schlegel said her biggest issues with required immunizations are the potential medical dangers of vaccines and the tension between state control and personal liberties infringement. 

Schlegel and Zelder also brought up certain instances when vaccinations were thought to have caused autism. However, multiple studies, including a 2013 CDC study, stated that there is no direct evidence that the antibodies and other constituents of vaccines cause autism. 

Many people who are fighting the state legalization of required immunizations have actually vaccinated their children, but resist the government imposing their beliefs to other families, Schlegel said.

“Where do we draw the line? What personal liberties are you willing to sacrifice because you need to think about that,” Schlegel said. “I don’t really care what you do for your family, but where do you draw the line on states infringing upon those personal decisions?”

Zelder agreed, addressing the danger of “cookie-cutter” medicine that’s used as a uniform remedy. Transparency must be required for both the pharmaceutical companies and the government to provide a more detailed description of all the components of a vaccine to parents, rather than simply a very narrow version of the facts, he said. 

“If you want to vaccinate your children, that is great,” Zelder said. “See, what they want to say is ‘Oh, see, we don’t just want to vaccinate ours. We want to vaccinate yours,’ and I think there is the difference.”

Villalba stated that often, policy has to be a compromise between liberty and utilitarianism. Dragsbaek said that it certainly was an issue of liberty but specifically about the liberty of parents to feel safe bringing their children to a vaccinated high school rather than an individual right. 

“This is a momma bear issue. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, and I saw children who had polio and children die of whooping cough. I saw the momma bears who would carry the children on their backs and walk, without shoes, for ten miles just to get their children immunized,” Dragsbaek said. “And when you see that, yes, this is a momma bear issue, and this is our kids that we’re talking about. And we have to protect them from everything we can.”