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Too many kids are not getting vaccinated

We let this happen, thanks to the fervor of a vocal minority.

The number of Texans who exempt their children from vaccination for non-medical reasons rose nearly 9 percent last school year, continuing a now 12-year-long trend that public health officials worry could eventually leave communities vulnerable to outbreaks of preventable diseases.

The new numbers represent a 19-fold increase since 2003, the first year that Texas law allowed parents to decline state immunization requirements for “reasons of conscience.” The number of such exemptions are still small, a little under 45,000 of the state’s roughly 5.5 million schoolchildren, but they’ve spiked from less than 3,000 that first year, according to the new state data.

“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” said Anna C. Dragsbaek, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a pro-vaccine group. “It’s time for the community to step up and take action on this very troubling trend.”

Concern has picked up in recent years amid the re-emergence of diseases such as measles and whooping cough. A large measles outbreak last year, linked to an initial exposure at Disneyland in California, sparked particular distress.

Texas is one of 18 states that allows waivers of school vaccine requirements based on parents’ conscience or personal beliefs. Only two states – Mississippi and West Virginia – don’t grant exemptions from immunization requirements on religious grounds, and all states allow exemptions for medical conditions, such as a compromised immune system.

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Pushed by the Immunization Partnership, the 2015 Legislature considered a bill that would have required the Texas Department of State Health Services to post the exemption numbers of every school on its website.

Under the current law, the department is only required to post aggregate numbers for each school district.

The bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Dragsbaek, impressed at the traction the legislation got, said the partnership will push hard on behalf of any such bill again in 2017.

The bill to require school-specific information called for the inclusion of delinquency numbers, also a big problem. At HISD, for instance, more than 3 percent of children in 2015-2016 – who hadn’t obtained a conscientious exemption – had not received at least one of each vaccine by the district’s age-specified deadline. Enforcement of such deadlines is up to the principal.

“Eleven percent of HISD’s prekindergarten students hadn’t received their first dose of measles vaccine 90 days into the school year,” said Dr. Susan Wootton, a pediatrician at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who is leading an HISD task force on immunization delinquency. “That needs to be fixed. Nepal does better than that.”

Harris County’s overall conscientious exemption rate is still relatively low, just 0.62 percent, but it’s doubled in the last five years. So has Montgomery County’s, now 1.73 percent. Brazoria County has gone from 0.30 to 0.80. Gaines County in West Texas has the state’s highest conscientious exemption rate, nearly 5 percent.

That would be a worthwhile bill, but the real goal needs to be to eliminate the “personal belief” exemptions, which are an increasing threat to public health. Unfortunately, the pushback on that last session was ferocious, and that has emboldened the anti-vaxxers. I don’t know how much optimism I have about the school-specific information bill as a result. There are plenty of people who would like to see better vaccination laws, but the energy and organization is on the other side. It would help to get some leadership from, say, the Governor’s office, but he has none to offer, so the rest of us are on our own.

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