Poll: GOP voters favor child immunization laws
While a growing number of Texas parents opt out of having their children vaccinated, a new poll shows that 86 percent of Republican voters want children to receive vaccines before starting school.
The poll found the vast majority of Republican primary voters want schoolchildren immunized, an increasingly contentious issue in the Legislature. In recent sessions, some GOP members have sponsored bills to make opting out of vaccinations easier and opposed bills to make each school report its opt-out numbers.
“Given the increasing number of Texans opting out and all the noise out there, it’s comforting to see such huge numbers of Republican voters support the protection of schoolchildren from disease and the role of government in this area,” said Dr. John Carlo, chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition, which commissioned the poll. “Republican lawmakers should have nothing to fear from extremists who don’t reflect the views of most of their party’s voters.”
The poll also found that 67 percent of Republican voters believe government should have a role in reducing the number of vaccine-preventable deaths; 68 percent oppose the concept of non-medical opt-outs; and nearly 80 percent believe schools should make their number of unvaccinated children publicly available.
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Texas is one of 18 states that allows waivers of school vaccine requirements based on parents’ conscience or personal beliefs. All but two states — Mississippi and West Virginia — grant exemptions on religious grounds and all states grant exemptions for medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system.
Republican vaccine advocates in the Legislature expressed happiness about the poll’s results. But they told the Chronicle its greatest value likely will be to help stem the tide against attempts to weaken vaccine requirements, given the current legislative climate.
“Based on last legislative session, I am not particularly optimistic about passing pro-vaccine legislation,” said Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, whose district includes the Texas Medical Center. “I’ll certainly try. Unfortunately, I don’t see things changing much unless the state suffers from a vaccine preventable epidemic of some sort. Until Texans who support common sense vaccination requirements become more politically engaged, I think the best we can do is try and stop further anti-vax initiatives.”
The poll, taken in early July, was released a few days after new state data showed nearly 57,000 students received a non-medical exemption from their vaccinations during the 2017-2018 school year, a more than 2,000 percent increase since 2003, when the Legislature began allowing such “conscientious objections.”
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The trend has alarmed public health leaders, who’ve expressed concern it could eventually leave communities vulnerable to outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as measles and whooping cough. Such outbreaks have occurred in some U.S. communities in recent years, apparently because of declining vaccination. Those public health leaders and officials credit vaccines with bringing major infectious conditions under some degree of control — smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio and measles — and saving an estimated 9 million lives worldwide each year. They emphasize vaccines are safe and effective.
Those who opt out say they are simply doing what they think is best for their child by avoiding vaccines. They argue that the assortment of shots — Texas children are required to receive 11 immunizations to attend school — are dangerous to developing bodies. Some believe a theory, considered discredited by health officials, that vaccines can cause autism in some children.
Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, said she disagrees that “Republican voters do not stand with us on this issue.”
“Not only do the majority of legislators side with us, I can tell you from talking to different individuals, parents and professionals around the state, that when we mention our mission of choice and informed medical consent, the majority of Texans agree with us,” said Schlegel. She downplayed the poll findings.
Schlegel also cited the Texas GOP platform, which says that “health-care decisions, including routine preventive care, such as immunizations, should be between a patient and health-care professional and should be protected from government intrusion. Texas public schools have a duty to inform parents they can opt out of Centers for Disease Control-recommended vaccines for their children.”
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Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, sided with Schlegel in emailed comments Monday. “As with every issue, I listen to the various options and points of view and then vote based on what is best for my constituents. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the survey, all I can tell you is that ‘vaccine choice’ is one the planks that is held in the Republican Party of Texas platform.”
Zedler then added: “Most Republicans that I know, trust parents a whole lot more than they trust the government to do the right thing for their own children.”
Carlo said the poll results show the GOP platform is out of step with rank-and-file Republican voters. He said that the platform wrongly leaves out any mention of the value of immunizations.
Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, disagreed with Schlegel about Republican views on the matter, noting that when he spends time with the general public, it’s clear they “understand how important vaccination is for kids and health in general.” He said required vaccination would “easily pass a popular vote, but within the confines of the party, because of the Far Right, you can hit walls from time to time.”
Sheffield, a doctor, said he agrees with his medical colleagues that “non-medical exemptions need to go away.” But he acknowledged that “whether the House or Senate wants to take that up is another matter.”
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Both Sheffield and Davis earlier this year prevailed in Republican primary elections against opponents backed by Texans for Vaccine Choice. A third candidate targeted by the organization, Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, did not prevail, though it’s unclear if the vaccination issue was a major factor.
In his comments to the Chronicle, Zedler noted that Villalba made “mandatory vaccinations a centerpiece of his campaign during the Republican primary, and he lost.”
No significant vaccine legislation passed in 2017, including the “Parents Right to Know” bill, which would have required the reporting of opt-out numbers at the individual school level — important, said proponents, to allow parents whose children are highly susceptible to diseases to choose safer school environments. Bills to make it possible to opt out online and to change the system so people have to opt in to receive vaccines rather than opt out to forgo them also failed to pass.
“There have been inappropriate attempts by a few to inject politics into the public health discussion on vaccines,” said Allison Winnike, president of the Immunization Partnership, a Houston-based vaccine advocacy group. “These poll results show, yet again, that the excessive noise is coming from a very small group of people that does not represent the constituency at large.”
Ragnar Research Partner polled 750 Texas voters in the Republican 2018 primary elections by telephone July 7-10. The poll’s margin of error is +/- 4 percent.