Rising vaccine resistance and public health in Texas

As the last days of Texas’ regular legislative session were winding down, the number of measles cases in Minnesota was heading upward. It continues to grow: There were more than 70 cases as of last week, most of them among unvaccinated children in the state’s Somali population. More than 20 of them were so severely ill they required hospitalization.

Texas isn’t Minnesota — yet. But when it comes to vaccination, the links are too close for comfort. Non-medical exemptions in Texas — where parents opt their kids out of vaccines — have been on the rise since 2003, increasing 19-fold to close to 45,000. Worse than these raw numbers are small pockets of vaccine resistance across the state where close to 30 percent of children are unvaccinated, and maybe more. That level needs to be at more like 5 percent in order to prevent a measles outbreak like the one in Minnesota.

But bills that could prevent such a scenario in Texas died during the last legislative session. In fact, most of them never even got a hearing.

The efforts of disgraced former researcher Andrew Wakefield and other science-denying activists in the anti-vaccine movement have worked to spread mistruths in the Minnesota Somali community. As a result, the vaccination rate among that group dropped to 42 percent in 2014.

Here in Texas, there may be public schools with similarly low vaccination rates — but parents have no way to find out about them. It’s impossible to get information on whether your child’s school has a vaccination rate far below safe levels, even if you’ve got a child who can’t be vaccinated because they’re undergoing chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressive drugs for other medical conditions.

But sick kids aren’t the only ones affected by this lack of information. The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective among people who receive both doses. That still leaves 3 out of 100 children unprotected, despite their parents’ best efforts. A few of those kids stricken in Minnesota were vaccinated. Perhaps even more frightening is that this highly contagious and very dangerous disease can be spread to babies too young to have been vaccinated.

Yet even Texas’ House Bill 2249, a bill to bolster transparency and parents’ rights to vaccine information, didn’t make it into law this session, though it was the only pro-vaccine legislation passed by a legislative committee. The Parents’ Right to Know bill would have required the reporting of vaccination rates at individual public schools. Anti-vaccine groups raised straw-man arguments about how this would reveal families’ personal decisions about whether or not to vaccinate. No, it would not.

All the bill would have done was allow a parent to say, “At this school, 20 percent of the children aren’t vaccinated. That’s way too dangerous. But look, at this school just a short distance away, 95 percent of the children are fully vaccinated. A great choice for us!”

Let’s look at another helpful bill: House Bill 126, which would have required parents to take a quick online course about vaccination before they could exempt their children from the state’s immunization laws. The only people that the Somali community in Minnesota was hearing from were anti-vaccine activists, and other parents who had heard those same false assertions. Now, the word being spread through that community is a different one: If we don’t vaccinate our children, we’re putting them in danger.

Why wait until the damage is done? Measles can have terrible long-term repercussions on health. HB 126 would have made sure parents who heard the scare stories would also get the other side.

Both bills would have enabled parents to make their own decisions for their children, while ensuring that parents were better informed.

Let’s not allow what happened in Minnesota to happen here in Texas. Contact your state representative and senator to say you want rights as parents, and support the legislators who courageously introduce bills to make our state healthier. Check out our website for more information; follow us on Facebook and Twitter so that you can join us on legislative days when we talk directly to state lawmakers. When it comes to protecting your rights and the health of your children, don’t let Texas legislators blink.

Rekha Lakshmanan

Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, The Immunization Partnership

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