By Layma Razi
Amy Aiken walks confidently into the offices of Texas legislators on her two prosthetic legs. She is missing her fingers and her legs are amputated below the knee as a result of her battle with meningitis.
I met Amy on Immunization Legislative Day in March, where she passionately shares her story with lawmakers and their aides, because if anyone can vividly and courageously represent the importance of vaccination and the value of protective immunization laws, Amy can.
“I don’t ever want to see anyone go through what my family and I have been through and continue to go through with my ongoing health issues,” she says. “I was dying in the hospital of a disease that I had never even heard of. And if I only had gotten the proper vaccines, I would be perfectly healthy today.”
Amy attended community college in New York, where the meningitis vaccine was not required of college students. After completing her studies there, she decided it was time to move to Texas to enroll in a university. In Texas, the meningitis vaccine is required for college students, but at the time, it was not required for students who lived off campus, like Amy. In any case, at the time Amy was sickened, the vaccine for her serogroup B meningitis wasn’t yet available; it now is. The meningitis vaccine dramatically reduces the chances of being stricken with this very serious, life threatening disease.
I listened intently as Amy told her story to legislator after legislator explaining the importance of strong immunization policies.
Amy was among more than 80 immunization advocates, along with The Immunization Partnership and other vaccine-advocacy groups, who came to the Texas Capitol to speak up for bills that would further protect the community.
These bills would require school districts to report campus-level immunization rates so that parents can protect their vulnerable kids by picking healthy schools; require state health officials to issue an annual HPV immunization report with local level immunization rates; and educate parents on the importance of vaccines in preventing the spread of vaccine-preventable disease before they receive an exemption from existing vaccination laws.
During Immunization Legislative Days, Texas lawmakers open their offices to community advocates to hear the concerns of the people they represent. In my first meeting with a legislative staffer, we talked about how helpful it would be able to “opt-out” instead of “opt-in” to the state’s immunization registry, which is a confidential, protected health record of Texan’s vaccination history. Right now, Texans have to join by signing a special form instead of being automatically enrolled in the registry and signing a form to be removed. I shared my personal struggle with this very issue when transferring between Texas universities because I couldn’t get my shot records easily from my doctor’s office. The staffer said parents have voiced the same concerns when trying to switch doctors or schools for their children.
Another legislator expressed personal interest in bills that relate to HPV, the virus that causes most cervical cancers. The legislator’s sister had been stricken with cervical cancer.
Also at the March event was a group of 5th graders who came to advocate for immunization policy and to learn about the democratic process. “I learned to talk to legislators,” one of the 5th graders said. “I didn’t know regular people could do that.”
In fact, we all can. Immunization Legislative Day is a small reminder that every person can make a difference to keep Texas free from vaccine-preventable diseases. Immunization Legislative Days provides the opportunity for lawmakers to meet with constituents and community members who work together for science-based immunization policy.
We’ll be walking the Capitol halls again on April 18 and May 17, advocating for pro-immunization legislation. We need to keep the momentum going. Having real people discuss these important issues with legislators is the best way to make sure they hear us and learn about policies that keep Texans healthy.
Want to join us? Register at /events/legislativeday2017/?ecode=101, where you also can learn about other ways to advocate for immunization.
Layma Razi is Communications Manager of The Immunization Partnership.
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