Arizona lawmaker calls mandatory measles vaccine 'communist' amid fight to control outbreaks

"The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values," the state representative wrote on Facebook.
Image: Kelly Townsend
Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend addresses delegates at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Sept. 12, 2017.Bob Christie / AP file

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By Elizabeth Chuck

An Arizona lawmaker has decried mandatory vaccinations as being tantamount to communism — an assertion that experts call a "false argument" that dangerously undermines efforts to control measles outbreaks in this country.

The legislator, Republican state Rep. Kelly Townsend, wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday that "it seems we are prepared to give up our liberty, the very sovereignty of our body, because of measles."

"I read yesterday that the idea is being floated that if not enough people get vaccinated, then we are going to force them to," wrote Townsend, who has written controversial social media posts in the past. "The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values but rather, Communist."

Her post came a day after Gov. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., said he was "pro-vaccination" and told reporters he would not sign any bills that would expand vaccine exemption categories in his state.

Study after study has proven the safety of vaccines.

But so far this year, nearly 160 cases of measles have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cases span 10 states, including four that are experiencing outbreaks: New York, Washington, Texas and Illinois.

Many cases are due to parents not vaccinating their children out of fear of adverse reactions, such as the risk of developing autism, though science has repeatedly found there to be no such link.

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Public health experts were quick to condemn Townsend's Facebook post.

"It's a false argument," said Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at the Baylor College of Medicine and author of “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism." The book disputes any connection between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder and describes his experience of raising a daughter with autism.

"This individual should be censured in the state legislature for saying this kind of stuff."

"If you're a child, you have a fundamental right to be protected against deadly infectious diseases," he said. "Just like if you're a child, you have a fundamental right to be put into a car seat or safety belt."

In a phone interview with NBC News, Townsend said her post has been misconstrued. She said she is not anti-vaccine, adding that she fully vaccinated her oldest child, but stopped giving her children vaccines because she believes her middle child, who has Asperger's and seizures, was injured from a shot at 11 months old.

"She got her shot and she stopped talking," Townsend said. "Her eyes went dark and she just would scream and arch her back for hours and hours every day for years."

Townsend said she believes people should be able to choose whether to vaccinate their children rather than be required to do so. She also said more research should be done on the safety of vaccines, a common refrain among anti-vaccine activists.

"I have a hard time believing these studies when I live it on a daily basis," Townsend, her voice catching, said of research showing the safety of vaccines. "You can make me look like a crazy person or whatever. That does not change my daughter’s life."

Injuries from vaccines are rare. Hotez said the chance of a severe vaccine-related neurological injury is "something like one in a million — less than the likelihood of getting struck by lightning."

"What this lawmaker is doing, and others in these states are doing, is they're basically putting kids in harm's way for purposes of political expediency and political gain," Hotez said. "This individual should be censured in the state legislature for saying this kind of stuff."

Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of health policy management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a practicing physician, called Townsend's post "unfortunate," especially at a time when it's critical to educate the public.

"Vaccination is a foundation of public health safety and measles vaccination is the only effective way to prevent what is otherwise one of the most contagious and deadliest diseases on Earth," Wu said. "The benefits far outweigh the risks."

Experts say allowing people to opt out of vaccines lowers herd immunity, which happens when enough people in a community are vaccinated against an infectious disease to protect any who are unvaccinated, such as infants too young to get the shots.

Measles has not been reported in Arizona in 2019 — yet. The Arizona Republic reported earlier this month that state health officials worry an outbreak could happen there due to the state's having a large number of vaccine opponents and lax laws allowing vaccine exemptions for nonmedical reasons.

Wu said he hoped Townsend's comments would serve as a lesson to others.

"If there’s any silver lining, it’s that it makes people aware that they need to be all-the-more vigilant and responsible about statements that they make that could harm the public health," he said.