Vaccination has become a dirty word at the Oklahoma Capitol.
Public health policies that drew little attention for decades are now so politically toxic that few lawmakers want to take a recorded vote on the issue. And fewer still feel comfortable talking about updates to the state’s vaccination schedule or getting rid of certain vaccine exemptions.
As Oklahoma joins 25 other states in the worst measles outbreak in a generation, changing the state’s vaccination policies has become the latest third rail of politics. Public health officials appear paralyzed almost to the point of inaction, and many lawmakers beg their colleagues not to sponsor vaccine-related bills that could embolden potential opponents.
Former Sen. Ervin Yen is a cautionary tale in the standoff. Yen, an Oklahoma City cardiac anesthesiologist, lost in last year’s Republican primary after speaking out pointedly for change in the state’s immunization policies.
Almost a year later, he’s hesitant to blame his loss solely on his pro-vaccination bills.
“Obviously, trying to educate the public like we were trying to do does not work, and the ‘anti-vaxxers’ are quote, ‘educating’ the public better than government or medicine,” Yen said. “Among legislators, they are afraid of bringing this up because of what happened to me.”
Yen was elected in 2014 and soon introduced bills that limited exemptions for vaccinations needed for school enrollment. They went nowhere in Yen’s first session. The next year, he authored bills that would have required parents to get information from a doctor before filing for a vaccine exemption. Those failed too, but his efforts drew the attention of a group of parents who believe their children were harmed by vaccinations.
“He decided as a physician to advocate for less exemptions, and that really stirred people up,” said Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican.
Most national medical groups say research is conclusive that vaccines are safe and effective and cause harmful reactions in only a small percentage of those vaccinated.
Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights started opposing Yen’s efforts on social media and then grew to grassroots lobbying at the Capitol. The group’s president, Liza Greve, said her oldest child suffered a vaccine-related injury from the rubella part of the MMR vaccination. She said her son has a developmental disability and will require care for the rest of his life.
“We’re not about being ‘anti’ anything,” Greve said. “We are pro-safety, pro-parental rights, pro-informed consent and pro-medical privacy.”
Oklahomans for Vaccine and Health Choice, a political action committee chaired by Greve, contributed more than $31,000 to House and Senate campaigns last year, according to state Ethics Commission filings. It gave the maximum amount, $5,000, to Yen’s Republican opponent, Joe Howell, a veterinarian. Howell lost in the general election to Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat.
With Yen gone, Greve said Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights took less of a defensive stance. By the end of session, just one vaccination-related measure, House Bill 2339, made it into law. The legislation requires parents to opt in if they want a child vaccinated at school by mobile vaccination units for influenza, measles, human papillomavirus (HPV), meningitis or other communicable diseases.
Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, managed to get two of his vaccine bills through the Senate, but they died in the House. Senate Bill 925 would have required school districts to publish data about their vaccination exemptions. Schools aren’t required to fill out the survey, and about half of private schools don’t participate.
“Anything dealing with vaccines in children is just such a hot topic that I assume the House just didn’t want to deal with that this year,” McCortney said. “I don’t think that it is possible to get any form of vaccine reform bill through the Legislature, and I don’t intend to try again next year. Even inconsequential vaccine bills are not viable here.”
Privately, some lawmakers question whether those opposed to stricter laws on vaccinations or exemptions can really sway an election. But they say the organized protests and messaging campaigns are definitely creating an appearance of power. A large majority of parents don’t hesitate to have their children immunized and don’t press for changes unless concerns are raised by a major outbreak of disease.
Outside of the Capitol, Greve’s group was vocal about a proposed rule by the Oklahoma State Department of Health to adhere to the vaccination guidance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Council on Immunization Practices. Greve said the council’s members have financial conflicts of interest and adopting its recommendations could lead to additional vaccinations in Oklahoma’s required vaccination schedule.
The Health Department received almost 100 comments on the proposed rule, all of them opposed. The department canceled a planned public hearing and dropped the rule.
“The OSDH decided to discontinue pursuit of this rule promulgation this year, instead taking time to re-evaluate and re-examine alongside stakeholders a more comprehensive approach to the promotion of, and systems ensuring, widespread immunization protections among Oklahomans,” agency spokesman Tony Sellars said in an email.
Dr. Thomas Kuhls, a Norman pediatrician and president of Vaccinate Oklahoma, said it’s unlikely any major changes to the state’s vaccination schedule or exemptions can be made in the current political climate.
“The Legislature is not allowing any anti-vaccine laws or allowing anything to strengthen the vaccine laws,” Kuhls said at a May 21 forum sponsored by Oklahoma Watch. “I think they want the problem to go away because when you talk about parental rights versus public health, it’s always a difficult argument, especially for a politician.”