Rick Perry and Vaccines: A Complicated Love Story

The former Texas governor is back talking up his support of vaccines.

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Former Texas governor Rick Perry talks with supporters at the American Principles Projects Red, White and Blue Gala at the Mayflower Hotel, February 5, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For years, former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been an outspoken advocate of vaccines as a public health measure, and for years, his support has yielded mixed political results. 

It was back in 2007, when then-Governor Perry issued an executive order mandating that all 11 and 12 year old girls in his state receive the HPV vaccine that helps prevent human papillomavirus virus, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. Religious conservatives stated a rebellion, saying that the vaccine encouraged girls to be sexual promiscuous. Sparking further outrage was the revelation that Merck, the manufacturer of the Gardasil HPV vaccine, was a major Perry political donor, and that the governor's former political director worked as a lobbyist for the company

By the time Perry hit the presidential campaign trail four years later, the issue had become a serious liability.

“The fact of the matter is that I didn’t do my research well enough to understand that we needed to have a substantial conversation with our citizenry,” Perry told reporters in August of 2011 regarding his decision to reverse his executive order. 

A public relations disaster for the candidate, the bad publicity also did nothing to help vaccination rates for HPV, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes is a "safe, effective and greatly under utilized" health measure that can save lives. 

Fast forward to 2015 and the great vaccine debate among prospective Republican presidential candidates. Rick Perry is once again poised for a White House run, and, once again, he is touting his support of vaccines. 

"I think it's important for us to stand up and say, you need to vaccinate your children," Perry said last week in an interview with the Washington Post. "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, that they have the power to work for, are as healthy as they can be. Obviously vaccines are a very important part of that. When I came into office, our vaccination rate in Texas was 65 percent. When I left, two weeks ago, it was 95 percent." 

While Perry's support for vaccination is laudable, his figures have been called into question by both the Post and the Austin American Statesman, the latter of which rated them "false." The problem is that Perry was being fast and loose with his data to come up with what seemed to be an impressive rise in the overall level of vaccination during his time as governor, and, in the process, diminished what progress was actually made. As the Post concluded:

Perry apparently had little reason to inflate his record on vaccinations, but he did so anyway. The vaccination rate went up about 14 percent, not 50 percent, and it stalled in the last half of his tenure of governor. 

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