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Texas parents fear being outed for seeking vaccine exemptions

Under House Bill 2249, the state would require reports on the number of vaccine exemptions at each public school. But parents say it could make it easier for people to publicly shame them for not vaccinating their children.

Nicholas Nunez, 4, sits with his mother, Elizabeth Trejo, while he receives his shots at the Immunization Collaboration of Tarrant County in Fort Worth on August 30, 2013.

If schools were required to reveal more detailed information about how many students have vaccine exemptions, some fear families that choose not to vaccinate their kids might be subject to bullying, harassment, violence and death threats.

House Public Health Committee members heard multiple stories over three hours on Tuesday evening from parents and children echoing fears of increased discrimination if House Bill 2249 were to pass. The bill would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to report every other year on vaccine-preventable outbreaks and how many students at public schools have vaccine exemptions.

Though the bill's author said no identifying information would be included, many opponents argued the bill seeks to out and publicly shame families who choose not to have their children vaccinated. Meanwhile, proponents of the bill feared sending their children to schools with low vaccination rates.

Committee Vice Chairman J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, the bill's author, said the legislation would give a “clearer picture of vaccination levels” that would be helpful for parents with children with compromised immune systems and chronic diseases. Sheffield pointed out the state already requires school districts to annually report on the number of kindergarten and seventh-grade students who are up to date on their vaccinations, have medical exemptions or are delinquent on vaccinations.

He said the bill does not create new work for school nurses or new vaccine mandates and that students would not be identifiable.

“Parents want the choice about where to enroll their children to lessen the chance of their child contracting a vaccine-preventable disease from an unvaccinated child,” Sheffield said.

The hearing comes as Texas legislators continue to grapple with how to balance public health safety with growing trepidation over the merits and effectiveness of vaccines. Legislators and the public health community are still reeling years later from a widely debunked study linking vaccines to autism that continues to fuel many parents' fears. Texas parents are allowed to use medical and “conscientious exemptions” that prevent their children from being vaccinated. Public health experts have said “herd immunity” is important because if enough children are not vaccinated, their resistance to a disease can be compromised.

Some members on the committee shared the concerns of Jennifer Lewis, a member of Texans for Vaccine Choice, that the bill would make it easier for people to figure out which students had vaccine exemptions and were unvaccinated. They also pointed out that the bill doesn’t currently require private schools to report at a campus level.

Janna Zumbrun, associate commissioner for disease control and prevention services for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the agency would also be concerned about breaking down the data by campus. She said the agency would be willing to work with legislators to come up with a potential solution.

“We try to not provide de-identified data that’s at such a small level that somebody could be identified,” Zumbrun said.

Among students in Texas from kindergarten to 12th grade in the 2015-2016 school year, 44,716 were reported as having a conscientious exemption, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services' latest report. The report found that the average vaccination rate was above 95 percent. But parents and public health experts are still concerned about the number of exemptions.

Lisa Pomeroy, a general pediatrician in Lubbock, told committee members that her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at two years old and has been through three years of chemotherapy, blood transfusions and spinal taps. She’s in remission but is immunocompromised. Pomeroy said she is preparing to enroll her daughter in kindergarten said she was worried when she heard multiple parents saying they were waiting on their conscientious beliefs exemptions.

“I don’t want to put my daughter in a dangerous environment,” Pomeroy said. “I want to keep her safe, and this information will let me decide what school is best for her.”

Lewis said during the hearing the bill “makes a very misguided presumption” that children with vaccine exemptions are responsible for spreading diseases and vaccinated children are not. She said the bill would make it easier for people to find out which children have exemptions.

“There is other information more relevant, such as the number of students with HIV, hepatitis and lyme and the number who receive live vaccines that can put the medically fragile at risk,” Lewis said.

Throughout the hearing state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he was unclear why vaccinated children were not being included in the bill. He said the bill creates a “false impression” that vaccinated children could not contract and spread diseases. He pointed out how cancer hospitals often tell people to not come in if they’ve been recently vaccinated.

But Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, told Zedler that throwing in cancer hospitals was “a red herring.” He told members and audience members that he has hepatitis B and that it is important for the state to try and save as many lives as possible.

“I wish I had been able to get a vaccination because that’s why my liver is messed up,” Coleman said. “I would understand why I wouldn’t want my children or your children or anybody else to be in a situation where they have an illness that is slowly killing them that could’ve been avoided.”

Read more about the vaccine fight in Texas: 

  • 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.  
  • 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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Health care Public education State government 85th Legislative Session Texas Legislature