Bad Science Marches at the Legislature

Anti-vaxxers turn out for Public Health meeting, promise more action

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin: She's coming to, er, make your medical records accurate? Wait, that's it? Huh.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin: She's coming to, er, make your medical records accurate? Wait, that's it? Huh. (Photo by John Anderson)

"You can't vaccinate against stupid." If you're wondering what caused Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, to provide this week's exasperated Quote of the Week, you weren't watching Tuesday's House Public Health committee hearing.

The trigger was the hours of testimony delivered against (wait for it) a bill about vaccinations. A measure jointly authored by Sheffield and Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, House Bill 465 is basically a piece of bureaucratic cleanup. It's also not particularly controversial among lawmakers, since an identical version of the bill passed the House in 2013, and simply timed out before it had a chance to pass the Senate.

Howard, a former nurse, explained to the committee the current situation. "There's some confusion," she generously explained, and clarified what it does not do. "HB 465 does not, in any way, limit access to vaccine exemptions. That has nothing to do with this bill. HB 465 does not force or coerce anyone to get vaccinated. Nothing in this bill has anything to do with that. And HB 465 does not involve the enforcement of vaccine mandates, nor does it set up tracking mechanisms for people who are not vaccinated." In short, she said, "If you or your children are not vaccinated, this bill does not affect you, period."

What it does do is update the way Texas uses its Texas Immunization Registry, or ImmTrac. That's the state's database of what vaccinations people have taken. However, at this point, Texans have to actually opt in to have their data uploaded to this medically useful healthcare database. It's an incredibly complicated process that means the state has to winnow through what data is uploaded, and it's become so burdensome to healthcare providers that many simply don't bother.

So while around 95% of patients are OK with having their data uploaded, there are huge gaps in the state's infectious disease immunization record. This is a real nuisance for people who want to travel, go to university, etc. etc. etc., and end up either having to hunt down old records from multiple health care providers, or pay for vaccinations they don't need. People will still be able to keep their files out of the system, so nothing has changed, aside from this being an opt-out, rather than an opt-in system. That would make Texas like 47 other states, which have the much more efficient and effective system.

The only speed bump from the dais seemed to be from committee member Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, who was concerned that the opt-out list would still be a list, which seemed to make him suspicious. However, the rest of the committee was broadly in favor, from medical professionals who understand its value for epidemiology and treatment, and parents who sheepishly admitted that they had little clue exactly where their kids' vaccination records are.

But this is the era of the anti-vaxxers, who turned up in force, accompanied by a maddening crowd of Agenda 21 zealots, anti-communists, evangelicals, and various other radicals who get their tenuous grasp of science from disgraced and discredited former British doctor Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy (aka the worst Singled Out host).

It didn't matter that the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Pediatric Society, the Texas Public Health Coalition, the People's Community Clinic, the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the Texas Association for Home Care & Hospice, the University Health System, and the Texas Nurses Association all spoke in favor of the bill. Or that this bill is merely an administrative fix that saves nursing staff a huge amount of time, and actually improves record keeping for patients and families. Or that it will actually make it easier for kids to attend school without having to wait for medical files to be supplied (as one witness explained, it was easier for school nurses to get immunization records from Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina than from Texas on a regular day). Because vaccines.

And so an administrative bill became an excuse for the typical anti-vaxxer song and dance. The tone was set by first speaker Roena Tomlin. "I think I misunderstood the whole bill," she admitted, before blaming a flu shot for her putting on weight. She was unclear about whether she wanted to be for, against, or neutral on the measure (she finally went with against). She was followed by Coleman and Sheila Hemphill, who have previously appeared on Infowars arguing that smart meters are a threat to Texan sovereignty, with Coleman arguing that this was a "slippery slope" toward mandated vaccinations. Spy thriller writer James Houston Turner pooh-poohed the whole medical establishment, and said the bill evoked the specter of Communist Eastern Europe (Sheila Hemphill also said this bill made the Lone Star State reminiscent of Pakistan, or Africa during the polio epidemic, when families were quarantined if they refused to be immunized. Again, in the middle of a polio epidemic. The killer disease polio).

And it only took until Julie Williams for the claim that mass vaccinations are bad for healthcare policy, all you need is a good diet and sanitation. She argued this was government oppression of herself and her family, "parents and people who have educated themselves as to the risk of vaccinations." Again, she argued that this would be a way to track people who have taken exemptions, ignoring, again, that this bill has nothing to do with that.

Here's the bad part: There are eight other bills on vaccination up for debate, some of which have something to do with vaccinations, rather than record keeping. So this was just a warm-up.

Oh, and the bill was left pending in committee. So we will have all this to go through again.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Rep. Zedler as Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond. Sorry, John.

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84th Legislature, Health, Anti-Vaxxers, Donna Howard, J.D. Sheffield, Texas Immunization Registry, ImmTrac

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