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Across Texas, growing clusters of unvaccinated children

Even though statewide levels of vaccinations remain high, public health officials are increasingly worried about the geographic areas where parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children.

Georgia Moore, front left, was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to undergo chemotherapy that affected her immune system. She had to stay home from school because her parents worried unvaccinated kids might make her sick.

Georgia Moore was diagnosed with leukemia the day after her 10th birthday. The fourth-grader began an intense chemotherapy regimen, which left her immune system vulnerable and kept her from attending her small, private Montessori school in Austin.

But her younger sister Ivy was in kindergarten at the same school, where a handful of families opted out of vaccinating their children. That meant 6-year-old Ivy might bring home germs that could pose a risk to Georgia.

“She would go to school, come home and immediately we’d put clothes in the washer to keep a healthy environment,” the girls’ mother, Courtney Moore, said of the family’s after-school routine.

The Moores’ vigilance paid off. Georgia, now 16, had very few hospitalizations during the course of her treatment and is now cancer-free and five years out of treatment. But Georgia’s battle against cancer made Courtney Moore a vocal advocate for immunizations in Texas — where an increasing number of parents are opting against vaccinating their children, and data about the number of unvaccinated kids in individual public schools is not available.

Texas is one of 18 states that allow non-medical exemptions to the vaccines required for school attendance. California had a similar law allowing non-medical exemptions, until last year when it enacted a law that has one of the strictest requirements in the country after a 2014 outbreak of measles traced to the Disneyland theme park infected more than 100 people around the country.

Many of the parents opting out of the immunizations, which are widely recommended by doctors, say they fear a link between the vaccines and health problems such as autism. But studies that they cite have been widely debunked by public health officials.

“Year after year we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of students with a conscientious exemption from vaccination in Texas,” said Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “But overall, the numbers are small.”

Even though statewide levels of vaccinations remain high, at over 98 percent, what concerns public health officials are the growing clusters of geographic areas with high rates of unvaccinated children. Texas went from just 2,314 “conscientious exemptions” in 2003 to 44,716 this year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Some parents are pressing state officials to let them know how many of their children’s peers are unvaccinated. Jinny Suh, who has a 4-year-old son, is helping spearhead a petition drive asking legislators to change state law so that the number of school exemptions is public. Currently, exemption rates are available for individual private and charter schools, but only district-wide for public schools.

State Rep. César Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, introduced a bill during the last legislative session that would have required schools to notify parents about vaccination rates at the school level, but the bill was stalled in committee.

“As a parent, there are lots of things that people get very passionate about,” Suh said, “but for some reason, in my experience, vaccinations remains an almost taboo topic besides a few passionate people.”

As is the case across the country, areas where kids aren’t receiving vaccinations in Texas tend to be places with more highly educated and higher-income residents. The school with the highest percentage exemption rate in the state is the Austin Waldorf School, where more than 40 percent of students are unvaccinated and tuition exceeds $13,000 a year. Regents Academy, a private school in East Texas, has the second-highest exemption rate, at almost 38 percent of the school.

“If one of those kids is incubating an infectious disease and the other kids aren’t vaccinated, then it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Troisi explains that for a disease like measles, you want “herd immunity” to be at 95 percent to prevent an outbreak. If healthy children aren’t receiving vaccines, they are putting children who are too young to receive the vaccine and people with compromised immune systems at a much greater risk of infection.

Peter Hotez, a professor in the department of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, called the growing numbers “extremely troubling” in a commentary last month on the PLOS online science journal. He noted that some counties were getting dangerously close to that 95 percent marker, such as Gaines County in the western part of the state where the exemptions are now at 4.83 percent, and Briscoe County in the Texas Panhandle with 3.55 percent. Hotez, who has a daughter with autism, highlighted the situation in Austin, where the public school rate for exemptions is 2 percent but many of the private schools exceed 20 percent.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in September issued a statement encouraging pediatricians to be more vocal about the importance of vaccines for children healthy enough to receive them.

But some parents are leery of the public health efforts on vaccinations. “We believe parents should make medical decisions for their children, not the state,” said Jackie Schlegel, director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a political action committee that was formed partially in opposition to 2015 legislation to do away with the state’s non-medical vaccine exemptions.

“We campaigned, we block-walked and we’ll do it again for anyone else who would like to trample on our parental rights,” said Schlegel. When asked if she supported a parent’s right to know the number of unvaccinated children at a given public school, Schlegel said “informed consent and privacy are very big concerns and need to be evaluated on both sides of the coin.”

Others are even more adamant in their opposition. “That’s a slippery slope,” said Del Bigtree, one of the producers of “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe,” a 2016 film drawing a link between autism and vaccines and alleging the federal scientists have covered up the research. It was directed by Andrew Wakefield — the former British gastroenterologist now living in Texas who authored a discredited research paper linking vaccines to autism in 1998. Bigtree, who stopped vaccinating his children, said he believes that any efforts to disclose immunization rates in schools are motivated by fear.

As a mother who has seen the issue up close, Moore hopes parents understand how their decision not to vaccinate their child could have far-reaching consequences.

“It’s a very personal decision…” Moore said. “But you have to recognize that if you choose not to [vaccinate], there’s a good possibility that that personal decision will impact a lot of people.”

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. 

Read more about the vaccine fight in Texas: 

  • The number of Texas students with non-medical exemptions to school immunization laws has soared statewide in the last decade. How does your school district fare? Check out our handy search tool to find out.
  • A new political action committee has made its mission to guard parents’ rights to opt out of immunization requirements — whether that means targeting legislators who seek to close non-medical exemptions or pushing for policies that otherwise protect parents who choose not to vaccinate.

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