The debate over whether or not parents should vaccinate their kids has raged for some time, but it’s become a hot-button political issue like never before in recent weeks: 123 active cases of the previously all-but-eradicated disease measles have been reported in the U.S., and the question of whether vaccinations against deadly communicable diseases are a good thing has become something of a shibboleth for high-profile Republican politicians angling for position in 2016’s presidential campaign

One medium-profile Republican (at least in terms of the likelihood of winning the nomination) whose stance veered in the opposite direction of the Chris Christies and Rand Pauls of the GOP is Rick Perry. When asked about vaccination, the former governor declined to use words like “choice” and “freedom” and opted instead to talk about his record in public health

Addressing the controversy this week over whether childhood vaccinations should be mandatory amid a rise in measles cases, Perry said national and state leaders should use their power to encourage shots. Two other 2016 GOP hopefuls, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), suggested vaccines should not be mandated.

“I think governors, elected officials, people in positions of authority and power and influence, should use those positions to make sure that the people they either represent or have the opportunity to work for are as healthy as they can be,” he said. “Obviously vaccines are a very important part of that.”

Perry said that when he came into office, “our vaccination rate in Texas was 65 percent. When I left two weeks ago, it was 95 percent.”

“We know that vaccines are a very, very important tool to keep our citizens safe,” Perry said. “I think it’s important for us to stand up and say, ‘You need to vaccinate your children. You need to do everything you can to keep them and the other children and the people they come into contact with safe.’”

Perry’s numbers are a bit off, as the Texas Tribune noted yesterday (he conflated two different statistics—the actual numbers are 77.3 percent, up from 63.5 percent), but his points that vaccination numbers are a thing to be proud of and that vaccination should be encouraged by people with governmental authority stand in contrast with Rand Paul’s belief that discredited research about an autism link should be taken seriously. 

Here in Texas, measles outbreaks have yet to be reported, but we’ve sure got some whooping cough, another mostly-eradicated lethal disease on a comeback as part of an anti-vaccination campaign tied to megachurches. And in an attempt to prevent the sort of diseases that used to terrify people, the Texas Legislature is considering doing away with certain exceptions to mandatory vaccination laws that currently exist. Specifically, representative Jason Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, has introduced a bill that would end conscience and religious exemptions to vaccinations: 

Concerned about the growing number of Texas parents who requested religious and personal exemptions to school vaccination requirements, a Texas lawmaker recently introduced a bill to nix both.

Just 0.75 percent of Texas students received an exemption during the 2013-2014 school year.

That may not sound like many kids, but it’s triple the number who received an exemption six years ago.

Denton County near Dallas had the highest exemption rate, with 4 percent of students opting out. […]

“We’re trying to just make sure that if you want to send your kids to public school you are going to get them properly immunized so you don’t bring these diseases to the school,” Villalba said.

Texas conservatives get a fair amount of traction talking about how they don’t want to let Texas turn into California, and perhaps that’s part of the motivation for this push: in some California school districts, the opt-out rate for vaccinations nears 20 percent. That’s troubling not only for those who aren’t vaccinated but also for those who are (and especially for the small percentage of the population who are unable to receive vaccinations for medical reasons, like immune disorders and egg allergies); vaccinations don’t make a person 100 percent immune to a given disease, which is why diseases mostly become eradicated when enough people are vaccinated so that the odds of anybody having it become very low. (This is called “herd immunity,” or as it’s referred to in anti-vaccination literature, “treating our kids like cattle,” simply because the word “herd” is used.) 

Still, there’s at least one Texas Republican who looks to the low immunization rates in California and gets a tingle of freedom envy up his spine: representative Jonathan Stickland, from Bedford, quickly took to Facebook to call out his colleague in language that wouldn’t seem inappropriate in a WWE promo

Rep. Villalba why don’t you leave medical decisions to parents instead of the government? I look forward to smashing your bill into the ground in the name of LIBERTY!

Indeed, Stickland’s challenge may be just shy of “Can you smeeeeellllllll what the Stick is cooking” (it’s measles), but the divide it reveals in regards to how vaccinations are being treated by Texas Republicans is worth following. Like all proposed legislation, Villalba’s bill has a lot of stages to go through before it’s law, but in Texas, the questions around vaccinations don’t fall easily around party lines. 

(“The Diagnosis of Smallpox,” Ricketts, T.F, Casell and Company, 1908 from Wellcome Library, London via Flickr)