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Perry steps into the politics of vaccination

Former Governor Rick Perry

In this nascent presidential cycle, there is no issue that has done more to light up the public health vs. personal freedom debate within the Republican Party than vaccinations.

And former Gov. Rick Perry walked straight into it last week in a joint interview with The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post.

“Our vaccination rate in Texas was 65 percent,” Perry said. “When I left [office] two weeks ago, it was 95 percent.”

Perry's numbers were off. The former — and likely soon-to-be — presidential hopeful conflated two different age groups, as the Post's Glenn Kessler pointed out. While 63.5 percent of Texans under the age of 3 received recommended vaccines the year Perry moved into the Governor's Mansion, and 77.3 percent did in 2007, by 2013 — the last year for which data is available — the rate was 76.4 percent. When factoring in new vaccinate recommendations, the 2013 rate was 72.5 percent. 

A Perry spokesman agreed the numbers were askew. "We cited incomplete numbers," Travis Considine wrote in an email. "The vaccination rate went up 14 percent in Texas during Gov. Perry’s leadership, and that is the number he uses to convey how Texas increased its immunization rates."

But statistics aside, the point Perry repeatedly made during that interview — that kids ought to be vaccinated, and that elected officials are partially responsible for ensuring it happens — reflected a dramatic political shift from other Republican contenders quoted that week.

“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,” Perry said in Thursday’s interview. “Obviously vaccines are a very important part of that.”

Earlier in the week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky came under sharp criticism for hedging on whether vaccination mandates were the right call. Christie called for "balance" and said parents should have "a measure of choice" on vaccinations. Paul said that vaccines ought to be "voluntary." 

Both men walked back their comments following a public health outcry. 

The Perry interview took place on Thursday – after three days’ worth of negative publicity and criticism over the Christie and Paul comments. 

Perry's comments shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Back in 2007, the state Legislature nixed a Perry executive order that required 12-year-old girls to be vaccinated for the human papillomavirus, or HPV. The move became an issue on the 2011 presidential campaign trail, and Perry called the failed effort "a mistake."

But regardless of how Perry may personally feel about vaccinations, there is still a robust debate back in his home state.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, on Friday called for limiting exemptions to vaccines. The state currently allows exemptions for religious or personal reasons under what is called a "conscientious exemption."

But some colleagues in his own party have a far different take. 

“Rep. Villalba why don't you leave medical decisions to parents instead of the government?” state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, wrote on his Facebook page. “I look forward to smashing your bill into the ground in the name of LIBERTY!” 

Reporter Morgan Smith contributed to this story. 

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/02/09/perry-steps-politics-vaccination/.