Shots Fired: Jason Villaba and vaccines in Texas

Published On September 17, 2015 | September/October 2015

“I was just thinking of ways to try to prevent outbreaks from happening in the rest of Texas, to be proactive for a change.”

By Sam Jackson Photos by Steve Dement

One of the most dreaded moments of a child’s life is finding out that they’re going to the doctor because the first thing that comes to mind is that they’re getting a shot. And when they’re right, they react like hell opened up and only they can see it. It’s also a defining moment for a parent when you manage to drag your kid through that. Now, an increasingly vocal group of people is promoting the idea that vaccinating your children is the worst thing a parent could do because it would put them at risk for autism. It’s become so well known in the mainstream that late night TV host, Jimmy Kimmel, brought on a group of doctors to fire back with choice bon mots like, “Hey, remember that time you got polio? No, you don’t, because your parents got you f***ing vaccinated.” What makes this really sad is that this whole movement partially stems from one dumb mistake. In 1998, influential British medical journal, The Lancet, published a study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that found a link between the vaccine given for measles, mumps, and rubella and incidences of autism among children. It might have been one of the most damning medical findings of our generation, but investigations proved that Wakefield distorted or outright changed a dozen medical histories of the study’s subjects. Evidence uncovered by the BMJ, another reputable British journal, showed Wakefield had been paid by lawyers looking for grounds to file lawsuits against vaccine producers. The study was immediately discredited and retracted and his credentials and medical license were stripped by the British government.

That should have been the end of it, but to this day, Wakefield maintains that his research was right and that he was the victim of a coverup by the pharmaceutical industry. It didn’t take long for conspiracy theorists to welcome him into their ranks and start echoing his views, and the hellish snowball rolled on, picking up people like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Charlie Sheen along the way. Worse yet, parents who got wind of Wakefield’s claims stopped vaccinating their children out of fear. Now, diseases that were long since erased have started popping back up in horrifying rates, like whooping cough and the aforementioned triple threat of measles, mumps, and rubella.
It falls to people like Texas representative, Jason Villaba, to try and clean up the mess, 17 years after the fact. Earlier this year, Villaba introduced a bill in the Texas House of Representatives that would seek to remove “conscientious” objections to vaccinations (medical exemptions would not be affected by this bill), so parents could no longer refuse vaccinations because of personal reasons. Currently, parents can sign forms expressing their objection under state law and send their kids to school without any of the required 10 vaccines, but the form does note the kids can be removed from school in the event of a public health crisis.

SDP_AustinMD20150903-5493_DRV“I was just thinking of ways to try to prevent outbreaks from happening in the rest of Texas, to be proactive for a change,” Villaba says of the bill’s genesis. He initially was pulled into the issue by his wife bringing home a vaccination form for their children, which explained the conscientious objection option in detail. Confounded by the issue, he delved into the history and started calling doctors.

“The first person I called is a gentleman who is the head and the president of the Dallas County Medical Society by the name of Rick Snyder,” Villaba said. “We started with him, we went to the Dallas County Medical Society, we went to the Texas Medical Association, we went to the doctor’s groups, the physician’s groups, the pediatric groups, we did some research online, we did some research through epidemiologists from around the country by talking with people at MIT and at Harvard, and we read a number of white papers on this.” After all this, Villaba is thoroughly convinced there is no link between autism and vaccines. The resulting bill is similar to a measure signed by California governor Jerry Brown, although theirs mandated vaccinations for children attending public or private schools, regardless of personal beliefs, and anyone who doesn’t comply will be home schooled or study off campus.

It goes without saying that Villaba has encountered vicious opposition in filing this, especially in his own party. His social media pages have been also fielding accusatory messages not just from people in Texas, but outside of the state and around the world. As he was speaking with Texas doctors, he also made time for anti-vaxxers as well.

“Most of the anti-vaxxers we encountered were parents of children who had some debilitating disease, often mental infirmity on the spectrum of autism,” Villaba says of the conversations he had. “All of them attributed their children’s malady to vaccines, but none of them could present or produce information other than the handful of studies that had been debunked or discredited.” Half of it, Villaba says, comes from a belief that the government shouldn’t mandate what goes into their bodies. The more tragic reason tended to be that people were just trying to make sense of a bad situation and latched onto an easy boogeyman to direct their anger and sorrow at.

“They wanted to believe they understood why their child was suffering, why their family was suffering,” Villaba explains. “Their marriages have been strained and their finances have been strained and so they feel aggrieved. And I think the idea that it was a big pharma company that did this to them, or it was vaccination that the government foisted upon them, it gives them something to hold on to, to give blame to their pain. And I think that’s what drives the people who are the loudest in the debate, those who have experienced some level of pain.”
John F. Kennedy once said when you have a child; you’re giving fate a hostage. While one can’t help but feel sympathetic to those parents, their method of therapy is not only counterproductive, it’s causing harm to other kids as well, who could slowly infect their schoolmates, then they all bring it back to their homes, and before you know it, those old diseases have become a more effective force from the grave than a billion zombies. Villaba has that in mind, because even though the vaccine bill didn’t make it out of the House, he plans to keep fighting.

“I’m a parent and I know the pain of a child is the worst pain you can possibly experience,” he adds. “My response to them is to say, ‘Look, you have a situation at home that I can’t change. I don’t know the reason for the illness that your child experiences, but I can’t change that. But what I can do is take actions and steps today to prevent other parents from experiencing pain.’ Because when measles breaks out in my community, then we’re going to see a number of parents who have children afflicted by measles. And while today measles is not generally a terminal disease, it can be a terminal disease.”

“If I can save the lives of one, two, three children in Texas and keep hundreds of Texans from having to experience the pain of measles merely by asking public school parents to vaccinate their children, I think that’s a fair trade. And science and the doctors and the PTA’s tell me that I’m right. So let’s move forward and try to protect our kids rather than trying to blame vaccines for the pain of kids who’ve been afflicted by horrible situations.”

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