The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawmaker promoting anti-vaxx bill suggests measles can be treated with antibiotics. (It can’t.)

State Rep. Bill Zedler (R), left, appears in court Aug. 27, 2015, to show support for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) in Fort Worth. (Paul Moseley/Star-Telegram/AP)

Amid a relentless anti-vaccine movement and measles outbreaks across the United States, a Texas lawmaker has falsely suggested that antibiotics can be used to treat the deadly childhood disease.

Texas state Rep. Bill Zedler (R), an anti-vaxxer who is promoting legislation to allow parents to more easily opt out of vaccinations for their children, said he had measles when he was a child.

"When I grew up, I had a lot of these illnesses,” Zedler recalled, according to the Texas Observer. “They wanted me to stay at home. But as far as being sick in bed, it wasn’t anything like that.”

“They want to say people are dying of measles,” he added. “Yeah, in Third World countries they’re dying of measles. Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying in America.”

Zedler, who represents an area that includes Arlington, situated between Dallas and Fort Worth, could not immediately be reached for comment by The Washington Post.

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There is no known treatment for measles, a highly contagious virus that once sickened millions of patients each year in the United States. Instead, health-care professionals try to prevent the disease by administering the MMR vaccine to children, and certain people who have been exposed, such as pregnant women, may be given a protein injection called immune serum globulin to try to thwart it or to lessen the symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections, cannot kill viruses.

Public health experts have warned against spreading bogus information about vaccines, thereby contributing to an anti-vaccine movement that has been sustained, in part, by fraudulent research from 1998 that purported to show a link between a preservative used in vaccines and autism. In the current measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, where anti-vaccine groups have long been active, more than 60 cases have been reported in Washington and Oregon.

In Texas — Zedler’s state — there are now eight confirmed measles cases.

Earlier this month, Darla Shine, the wife of White House communications director Bill Shine, took to Twitter to claim that illnesses such as measles, mumps and chickenpox “keep you healthy & fight cancer.” Her statement prompted concern from public health experts, who said such erroneous claims could cause harm.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said Wednesday morning at a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that disseminating misinformation plays an important role in these outbreaks. Fauci said that when phony information is put on the Internet, “it’s tough to get it off.”

“The people who read that information may not know it’s false,” he said. “They may be well-meaning, but the spread of false information is a major problem.”

Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, an estimated 3 million to 4 million patients contracted the disease each year in the United States — and about 400 to 500 died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2000 — almost four decades after parents began vaccinating their children — measles was declared eliminated in the United States.

CDC data shows that from 2000 to 2018, there was an average of 140 measles cases per year in the United States. And there were three reported fatalities during that time — one in 2002, one in 2003 and one in 2015.

Each year in the United States, legislation is introduced by anti-vaxxers that would make it easier to opt out of childhood vaccinations. However, research has shown that most bills that become law support public health.

According to a study published late last year in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers who analyzed proposed and enacted vaccine legislation between 2011 and 2017 found that bills supporting vaccines were more likely to become law, even though there were slightly more bills considered to be anti-vaccine.

As The Washington Post’s Lena Sun reported, there are a number of state measures that would make it more difficult for parents to opt out of immunizations.

She wrote:

In Washington state, where the worst measles outbreak in more than two decades has sickened nearly 70 people and cost over $1 million, two measures are advancing through the state legislature that would bar parents from using personal or philosophical exemptions to avoid immunizing their school-age children. Both have bipartisan support despite strong anti-vaccination sentiment in parts of the state.
In Arizona, Iowa and Minnesota, lawmakers have for the first time introduced similar measures. The efforts have sparked an emotional, sometimes ugly response from those protesting what they see as efforts to trample on their rights. Opponents of the Arizona bill, which died quickly, have described the toll of stricter vaccine requirements as a Holocaust and likened the bill’s sponsor, who is Jewish, to a Nazi.
In Vermont, legislators are trying to do away with the state’s religious exemption four years after eliminating the philosophical exemption. In New Jersey, where lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully to tighten religious exemptions, a bill to repeal it entirely was recently amended on the General Assembly floor.

Lena Sun contributed to this report.

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