Texas legislator accuses scientist of "sorcery", measles outbreaks continue to rise

Sorcery. That’s not a word read every day among news reports about Texas state legislators, yet that’s exactly what happened when a scientist addressed his concerns about a growing segment of the state’s population that is not vaccinating their children.

Texas State Rep. Jonathan Stickland did not take kindly to a leading vaccine scientist noting statistics included in a new report published Monday by the Texas Department of State Health Services. A new statistic alarmed Dr. Peter Hotez – a 14% rise in parents opting out of vaccinating their children. While 14% may not sound like a big number, in Texas it amounts to more than 64,000 kids. That number doesn’t take into account over 300,000 home-schooled students. The number of exemptions has more than quadrupled over the past decade in Texas. Dr. Hotez spoke about that new number in an interview with The Washington Post. Then he went to Twitter to post his warning about the consequences of opting-out of vaccines. It all began with a basic chart and a mention that special interest groups are making money off of the anti-vax movement. He issued a call to Texas legislators to step up “for our children”.

State Rep. Strickland responded by accusing Dr. Hotez as being “bought and paid for” by big special interest groups. Nope, responded Dr. Hotez. He doesn’t take any money from the vaccine industry. He develops neglected diseases vaccines for underdeveloped countries in the world, besides being a Pediatrician. In other words, he’s a scientist and vaccines fall within his wheelhouse. Dr. Hotez is a dean at the Baylor College of Medicine and an endowed chair at the nonprofit Texas Children’s Hospital.

It is reported by the Houston Chronicle that Strickland continued his escalation on Twitter after telling The Washington Post that he is not “anti-vaccination” himself.

“Make the case for your sorcery to consumers on your own dime,” the Republican, who represents an area of suburban Fort Worth, snapped back Tuesday. “Quit using the heavy hand of government to make your business profitable through mandates and immunity.”

Besides the reference to sorcery, the most interesting part of this whole ruckus is that Strickland is not an anti-vaxxer. He thinks he is standing up for religious freedom and most of all, individual rights.

Although Stickland backs “parental rights,” he is not discouraging vaccination, he told The Post on Wednesday. In fact, he said, “parents should take that responsibility seriously.”

“It comes down to whether the government should be mandating what’s right for us,” Strickland said. “I side with the individual.”

Of concern lately, it is the increase in measles outbreaks nationwide that raises awareness about the increase in opting-out of vaccinations. Some outbreaks are within religious communities who object that vaccines conflict with religious beliefs. Others object on government mandates. Some increase is due to unvaccinated international travelers.

From Jan. 1 through April 26, 704 cases of measles were reported, the highest number of cases reported since 1994. Outbreaks in close-knit communities accounted for 88 percent of all cases. Of 44 cases directly imported from other countries, 34 were U.S. residents traveling internationally; most were not vaccinated.

Across the United States, more than 760 measles cases have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2019, the highest number of cases since 1994, according to the CDC. Fifteen of those cases came from Texas, Hotez said.

There is an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune that predicts Cook County will be the location of the next big measles outbreak. This is due to the fact that there are pockets of communities resisting vaccinations, like the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, but also because of the presence of O’Hare Airport. The same researchers who correctly predicted where the Zika outbreak would happen in 2015 now have a list of 25 counties in the U.S. most at risk. Cook County tops that list. I noticed that Harris County in Texas (Houston, where Dr. Hotez lives) is number 9 on the list.

A research project spearheaded by Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Chicago-educated professor at the University of Texas at Austin, revealed the 25 counties most at-risk for a widespread measles outbreak, like those seen in Washington, Oregon and New York. Sarkar and his former student, Lauren Gardner of Johns Hopkins University, determined Cook County was the most at-risk for an outbreak. That’s based largely on the number of airplane flights to Chicago from global destinations where parents increasingly don’t have their children vaccinated, he said.

Unvaccinated children traveling abroad run the risk of being infected and returning home to the United States, only to spread the preventable diseases. That is what happened in Brooklyn last year when children traveling to Israel returned home.

Since the 2015 work on Zika, Sarkar learned that a widely discredited former physician who claimed the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism has relocated to Austin and gained a following. Sarkar did the measles study to warn people what could happen if they choose “conspiracy theories” over science.

“It occurred to me that perhaps besides the vaccine resistance from people who bought into this false notion that the MMR vaccine has a link to autism … the other crucial factor would be the volume of travel from countries outside the U.S. where there have been epidemics,” including in European countries and the Philippines, Sarkar said.

Sarkar points to what happened in Brooklyn in October after unvaccinated children visited Israel during a monthslong measles outbreak. They returned to their community, made up mainly of ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of whom have chosen not to vaccinate their children with MMR because they believe the vaccine contains products forbidden from consumption. What followed was one of the nation’s largest outbreaks, prompting New York’s Rockland County to declare a state of emergency, banning unvaccinated children from visiting public places.

And, I’ll end with an article about a teenager in Kentucky who sued the Northern Kentucky Health Department after he was barred from attending his school during an outbreak of chickenpox. He was unvaccinated. His exemption was granted on religious beliefs. Cells of aborted fetuses were used in the creation of the original vaccine but that practice was quickly stopped. The teen and his family believe that it was created in an immoral way. The Vatican’s Academy of Life, by the way, has come out in favor of vaccinating against chickenpox. This is a quote from the teen:

“As a Catholic we believe that abortion is wrong, morally wrong,” Kunkel reiterated to ABC News last month. “And so, the vaccine is derived from aborted fetal cells … that obviously goes against that.”

So, the teenager who could have been vaccinated against a preventable disease now has the chickenpox. This is what is playing out across the country. Deadly diseases once eradicated and now preventable are making a comeback. It’s an unnecessary and very deadly risk for parents to take with the lives of their children.