This is the third in an occasional series about the everyday vaccine heroes of Texas. These aren’t the politicians or researchers or the authors of books. Rather, their personal experiences have made them deeply aware of the need to protect the public from vaccine-preventable diseases. Everyday vaccine heroes reach out beyond those personal situations to improve the health of the entire state.
Carol Roach is used to hearing all the arguments against vaccines. She’s been hearing them from her own mother since she was a little girl. What she finds hard to believe is that, despite decades of proof otherwise, the same arguments keep surfacing.
Roach was given her first shots, but early on, her mother claimed that her little girl had suffered a vaccine injury. That story is off-base, Roach says. “It was a little bit of fever and a grumpy child.”
Even so, at that point all immunizations for Roach and her brothers stopped. She received her first round of vaccinations, which included those against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and polio, but doesn’t know if she was immunized at all against measles, mumps and rubella.
That’s a shame, she says. Although vaccine opponents including her mother spoke about their beliefs in terms of individual rights, she feels that people need to be concerned about the rights of children to be protected against diseases that could make them miserable for weeks, cause permanent damage or even kill. She also is concerned about the larger issue of public health, and the rights of medically fragile children who can’t receive certain vaccines but who nonetheless deserve protection.
“I wish that someone had made it more difficult for my parents not to vaccinate me,” she says, “because now I have to figure out how to get all the vaccinations up to date.” Her immunization record is unclear, and doctors have been unsure about which vaccinations she needs.
Now a professional chemist living in the Houston area, Roach has tried for years to explain to vaccine opponents the science that she understands so well. In 2017, she began using her expertise to advocate more formally for vaccination, making her one of our everyday vaccination heroes.
But during her childhood and teenage years, Roach didn’t think about her mother’s vaccine beliefs all that much. “As a child, you trust your parents to know what’s right for you,” she says. It was when she studied chemistry and biology in college that she began to view the matter with fresh, more educated eyes.
“I had courses in biology where I actually had to learn the science that was related, how immunity works, how vaccines work,” she says. The solid facts learned in those classes made her realize that her mother’s complaints about vaccination didn’t mesh with the reality of how the human body works.
In order to enter graduate school, Roach was required to be vaccinated against certain diseases, and saw not just theoretically, but in a very personal way, that they did not make her sick; rather, they protected her. Her belief in vaccination continued to grow as she continued to study chemistry, and obtained her doctorate.
Roach felt compelled to act in 2017 because of what she saw as new, very vocal attacks on vaccination by some politicians. Working with Immunize Texas, the grassroots organizing arm of The Immunization Partnership, she testified in the state Legislature against a bill that would have made it even easier for Texas parents to exempt their children from the state’s vaccination laws even when there is no medical reason for doing so. The number of such exemptions has been steadily climbing over the past decade and a half.
It’s frustrating to Roach. “You hear a lot of people using the same arguments against vaccines that you know aren’t true and you say, ‘this stuff has been around for 30-plus years and it is so untrue,’ but the arguments don’t change.” One of the beliefs that annoys her most is the myth that vaccines didn’t make certain diseases disappear from the country, but rather that the population just naturally became immune to it. “It’s a very privileged and xenophonic perspective,” she said, and something that her mother repeated often. She remembers that despite this supposed natural immunity, her younger brother caught whooping cough at the age of 2 – and that she, who had received a DTaP shot as an infant, did not catch it from him. A new report from the World Health Organization found that the number of measles deaths worldwide was reduced to less than 100,000—an 84 percent reduction since 2000 —because of a global vaccination campaign.
In testifying against the Texas exemption bill, Roach spoke on behalf of the children who, like her and her siblings, have been denied the opportunity to be vaccinated, on behalf of the children who cannot be vaccinated because of their own medical problems, and as a chemist who is fully versed in the science.
The bill was rejected.
“I noticed that several of the more vocal supporters of anti-vaccination legislation kind of left the room while I was speaking,” which she saw as a sign that her words were having an impact, she says. And she thinks her testimony heped the legislators “who were trying to be objective about the issue.”
There’s an ironic sidebar to Roach’s story: In more recent years, her mother trained to become a nurse. Although she still professes opposition to vaccines, her new job as a health care provider requires her to receive some vaccinations regularly – and she does.
“She’s not so anti-vaccine that she won’t get the vaccines that are required to do her job,” Roach said with a laugh.
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