Texans deserve better vaccination policies from their legislators

Usmaan Hasan

“Don’t California My Texas” has become the rallying cry of Texas Legislators and the Texas GOP, often used to deride the avocado-loving, personal-liberty-suppressing, liberal bastion of Austin. The Californication of Texas – not to be confused with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ smash hit – is a trend the Texas Freedom Caucus is avowed to reverse. To preserve personal liberties, the Caucus has taken potshots at making vaccination exemptions easier to obtain. Yet, expanding and utilizing exemptions is playing Russian roulette with the health of countless children. By now the GOP should have learned to be wary of all things Russian.

Three types of exemptions are available to parents in Texas — religious, medical, and the catch-all “reasons of conscience.” Children too ill or allergic to bear vaccinations rely on other vaccinated people to prevent illness from taking hold, known as herd immunity. Experts estimate that herd immunity occurs when 95 percent of the population is immunized.

The impact of looser vaccination rules is profound for Texans. On July 14th, in the face of a preventable mumps outbreak, UT Austin sent a campus-wide email warning students about the outbreak. Moreover, a Baylor College of Medicine study published in October of 2016 found 10 Texas counties hovering dangerously near losing herd immunity, solely on the basis of conscientious exemptions.

The most vulnerable of these counties is Gaines County, which has a dangerous 4.83 percent conscientious exemption rate. These 10 counties include large population clusters such as Travis and Denton, but perhaps the most striking feature of the list is that most of the counties are relatively small with populations around 10,000. Here a lack of herd immunity creates a perfect storm for disastrous outbreaks. For example, in Kent, population 843, only 20 more individuals claiming conscientious exemptions would put the county on the precipice of extreme vulnerability.

The fact that 20 people can determine the public health of a county is compelling. Pop-culture icon and part-time politician Kanye West preached in “Power” that “no one man should have all that power.” Therein lies the core issue with vaccine exemptions, a relatively small number of people can compromise the health of the many. Recognizing this, in the 1905 Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts the court established that personal liberty does not extend to undermining public health.

Until 2015, the nefarious state of California created laws to make obtaining exemptions much easier. After a massive measles outbreak, legislators quickly removed all exemptions except those for medical reasons. During the 85th Legislature, Texas Freedom Caucus member Matt Krause made an unusual move to mimic California’s prior looser rules. Clearly he didn’t get the “Don’t California My Texas” memo.

The debate in Texas over vaccines rarely comes down to the science of the matter, which has found that vaccines do not cause autism and are effective. Rather legislators and lobbyists claim that the preservation of personal freedoms is of paramount importance. However, the exercise of liberty comes with natural limitations, and the peace of mind a parent has that their child will not get a rare disease is sacred. California learned its lesson — Texas needs to avoid the mistakes of its rival.

Hasan is a Finance and IRG sophomore from Plano. Follow him on Twitter @UzzieHasan.