As confirmed measles cases around the country hit the highest number since 2000 — including more than a dozen confirmed cases in Texas — state lawmakers are considering whether parents should have access to more information about how many students in local schools aren't vaccinated.
For well over a decade, Texas has sent an annual survey to schools about how many kindergarten and seventh grade students filed for exemptions from vaccines. But the data, while publicly available, is often incomplete and lacking some key details. While private schools and charter schools report exemption rates by school, the public school districts that most Texas children attend only publicly report a rate for the entire district.
Senate Bill 329 from state Sen. Kel Seliger would allow parents to access more detailed information for each school. It would include information such as the exemption rates broken down by vaccine type, the number of students who have "conscientious exemptions" — vaccine exemptions for personal or religious beliefs — and the number of students who have medical exemptions signed by doctors. The Amarillo Republican said the bill isn't meant to impact the decisions of individual families and whether they should vaccinate their children.
“It has nothing to do with with vaccines or people who choose not to have them,” Seliger told The Texas Tribune. “It's just a statistical figure … so parents can make an informed choice. It has nothing whatsoever to do with kids who are or are not vaccinated.”
The World Health Organization has named "vaccine hesitancy" one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Earlier this month, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio issued a public health emergency over a measles outbreak in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and announced that some unvaccinated individuals would be required to get the measles vaccine or risk a possible fine.
Texas law requires that children at all public and private schools have 10 immunizations for diseases such as tetanus, polio and whooping cough. Children must receive the vaccines before enrolling in kindergarten and are required to receive others, such as the meningococcal vaccine, in later grades. If parents want to opt out of the vaccine requirements through a conscientious exemption, they must submit a notarized affidavit form to the school that is valid for a two-year period.
In 2003, Texas allowed conscientious exemptions for the first time in addition to medical and religious exemptions.
State data shows a marked increase in conscientious vaccine exemptions over the last decade, as the "anti-vaxxer" movement has taken hold. In the 2017-18 school year, the overall conscientious exemption rate for students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade was 1.07%, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. In Texas' largest school districts, the conscientious exemption rate for kindergarten students was higher at 1.8%. Of those larger districts, Austin ISD, which had a total student enrollment of 81,346 students for the 2017-18 school year, had the highest percentage of conscientious exemptions for kindergarten students at 2.3%.
Yet the data is also missing many schools and districts that don't fill out the survey every year. Although it's mandated by Texas law, the state doesn't have a way to enforce that mandate, according to DSHS spokesman Chris Van Deusen. And exemption data from schools and school districts with fewer than 65 students isn't released publicly.
If a school fails to report its exemption information to the state, DSHS will audit the school the following year to make sure it is is keeping the proper records, Van Deusen said. However, the agency won’t report that data back to the state. Only the school can submit the survey, he said.
At a hearing for Seliger's bill Tuesday, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, raised concerns about a child being identified on smaller campuses under the more detailed exemption rates laid out by the bill. Seliger said the bill still applies the existing privacy laws that protect a student’s vaccine information.
Critics of the bill expressed the same concerns as Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, about student privacy. Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, warned that the expanded access to data in Seliger's bill could lead to bullying and harassment of students and their families.
The vaccine exemption information would “only be as confidential as the campus culture,” she said.
Kolkhorst left the bill pending and has not said whether the committee will vote on it in time for it to move through the two chambers before the session ends in late May.
State Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, introduced a similar bill in the House this session, but it has not yet received a hearing. Sheffield filed an identical bill two years ago that made it out of the House Public Health Committee but never reached the chamber floor for a full vote. Seliger also introduced a similar bill last session, but it never received a hearing.
Dr. Flor Munoz, an associate professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, said vaccine fears have become so instilled in some people that she's found herself failing to convince parents of children who are in the hospital for vaccine-preventable diseases that they should vaccinate their children. She traced those fears to a now-retracted 1998 study that linked autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Andrew Wakefield, who authored the study, lost his medical license in 2010 and now lives in Austin.
“They still think vaccines cause autism,” said Munoz, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases. “They say, ‘Oh, I can deal with my child having to be on a ventilator, but I cannot deal with autism.’ There's so much wrong information out there that these people are hanging on to, and they're really putting their child's life at risk.”