There have been 127 confirmed cases of measles in the United States since the beginning of the year — most in children. In New York, unvaccinated children have been ordered to stay home from several schools in order to contain outbreaks, which have popped up in Oregon, Washington, and Texas. While some politicians are working to close the legal loopholes that help anti-vaxxer parents avoid giving their kids critical preventative medical care, others — notably Rand Paul, a trained physician — are catering to a small, radicalized minority of highly vocal activists.
Alma Hernandez knows these people. They call her a Nazi on the internet.
In Arizona, one of the 17 states that allow medical, personal, and religious exemptions to vaccine requirements, Republican lawmakers have been trying to further weaken immunization requirements. Hernandez, a 25-year-old democratic member of the Arizona House of Representatives, is fighting back. Hernandez, who claims to be the first Mexican-America and Jewish woman to hold public office, has introduced a bill that would kill in-state religious exemptions, which are redundant with personal exemptions, and mandate that unvaccinated kids in not be allowed in public schools during outbreaks. The bill is not extreme but has, fairly predictably, pissed a lot of people off.
As the Arizona legislature mulls doing more to cater to the ill-informed leaders of the anti-vaccine moment, Hernandez continues to fight for children’s health. Fatherly spoke to her about what responsible vaccine legislation could look like and why states still haven’t seen it.
Tell me about your vaccine bill. How do you think it would help and why did you introduce it given that it is unlikely to pass?
Arizona is one of the states that has personal, religious, and medical exemptions. The personal and religious exemptions are filed basically the same way. We do have the medical exemption, of course. That is done by your medical professional. That’s necessary and we need to have those. I wanted to remove was the religious exemption. I feel it’s not necessary, considering we already have a personal exemption.
With all the outbreaks, it’s something that I had been looking into for a while now. I introduced my bill, and it didn’t move anywhere. But I think it’s fair to say that there is a good majority of us who feel that children in public schools should be immunized because they are around other children.
The bill is aimed pretty specifically at the wellbeing of kids in public schools. In that sense, it feels a bit like it’s aimed at protecting children from irresponsible parents.
My background is in public health. We should be encouraging parents to vaccinate their children. We have vaccinations for a reason. They were invented to help us get rid of the horrible diseases that were killing people. Now that we have them available, why wouldn’t we use them? I feel that it’s my job to stand up for the safety of children not only in my community but in my state. I feel that exemptions give parents another excuse not to vaccinate their kids.
Obviously, there are problems with keeping kids at home who are not vaccinated. No one wants to deprive kids of educational opportunities.
My bill called for keeping kids home, but only in the case of an outbreak. So, if there was an outbreak, you would have to go home if you were not vaccinated. I think that’s part of the bill that actually helps protect these kids.
Why didn’t your bill go anywhere? It seems extremely reasonable.
The Chair of the Health Committee, who is a Republican, would not hear the bill. In fact, she introduced three bills herself to counter to my bill, each making it so that we had more exemptions. That passed in the Committee. It was unfortunate, but they haven’t gone anywhere. Our governor said that he would veto any bill that would make it more difficult to vaccinate children.
How did constituents react to your bill?
Of course you are going to get a little mix of everything. You can’t please everyone. But I did have constituents who were very thankful and actually emailed me to thank me. Parents with their kids in public school are concerned about the safety of their children. I also got messages that were not so nice, from those who were not very pleased with me. There’s a little mix of everything, but I think it’s evident that this is an issue we should be talking about.
Some anti-vaccine activists found out I’m Jewish and compared my bill to the Holocaust. I don’t find that funny. For an issue like vaccinations, it was extreme to compare it to that. Even here, in our chamber, we have members who don’t understand why that’s a problem.
It must be frustrating to be on the side of science and still have some constituents accuse you of committing war crimes or genocide. Does it all get a bit frustrating?
The evidence is there. The research is there. All the science is there. I’m not making these things up. I’m not making these facts up. I’m not finding these things on Google and saying, ‘This is important for our children to be vaccinated because Google told me!’ One of the days during the hearing, I said ‘I know there is a lot of caution and a lot of people are very passionate, but please don’t compare your passion to facts.’
It seems like the silver lining here is that Governor Doug Ducey isn’t going to sign any bills making it easier to get out of providing kids with healthcare. That’s not progress, but at least Arizona is inoculated against going backward.
We just need to make sure we’re doing better. We’re not going back to the 1900s.