Vaccines and the price of opting out

Anthony Adams, 10, reacts as nurse Fawna Dougoud administers his shot of the H1N1 vaccine in Haltom City on Oct. 30, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Imagine your child in the intensive care unit, sedated and on life support. You brought them to the emergency room with a fever and watched as their lungs faltered, the war being waged inside their little body. They are now attached to a ventilator that breathes for them, and a machine is delivering oxygen to their blood outside of their body. Your child is alive thanks to the unbelievable power of modern medicine, but fighting for their life. Your child has the flu.

Stories like these are becoming a common occurrence, especially at the peak of the flu season. During my career as a registered nurse in a large academic medical center, I have had the displeasure of watching the influenza virus ravage even the healthiest of individuals. It is a merciless and indiscriminate enemy. It is also largely preventable.  

Yet recent data suggests parents of school-age kids in Texas are opting out of vaccinations, including the flu vaccine, at alarming rates. Texas — along with 16 other states — allows parents of school-age children to opt out of required school vaccinations on the basis of conscience. This clause has allowed for a recent explosion in the number of vaccine exemptions.

In virtually every school district within and around Austin, the vaccine exemption rate has risen. Nearly 50 percent of students attending Austin Waldorf School — a staggering statistic — went unvaccinated this past school year.

In the larger Austin school districts, such as Austin ISD, the exemption rate is now roughly twice the state average. This is a cause for concern.

Local clinics and hospitals can become overwhelmed with treating preventable illnesses during peak seasons, which can lead to delays in care and increased healthcare expenditures. In addition, herd immunity — the reduced risk of contracting a disease when a majority of a community is immunized — can become unpredictable with an increase in opt-outs, putting the most vulnerable among the community at greater risk.

Studies have shown that states with lenient vaccination laws often have higher nonmedical exemption rates and disease rates. It’s time to forego the nonmedical exemption clause and reframe our school vaccination requirements to reflect recent discoveries.

So, what would it look like to have Texas’ exemption clause removed? For one, the rate of vaccinated school-aged children would likely rise. In 2015, California passed SB277 which eliminated nonmedical exemptions for school entry. It was the first state in almost 35 years to do so. In the two years following the bill’s passing, California saw a nearly 2.5% increase in statewide kindergartners receiving school-entry vaccines.

Second, there would likely be a decline in the rate of children contracting — and dying from — preventable infectious diseases such as the flu, measles, and pertussis. Hospital admission rates related to these illnesses would in turn decrease.

Finally, a discussion on vaccinations would be incomplete without addressing autism. From the mouths of celebrities (think Jenny McCarthy) to the average parent’s Facebook newsfeed, the idea that vaccines cause autism is rampant. It’s also incorrect, dangerous propaganda. The only two published studies — by the same author, no less — that claimed to find a link between vaccines and autism were critically flawed and later retracted from scientific records. To be crystal clear, vaccines have not been found to cause autism. They also do not cause that which they are designed to prevent ­— a common flu vaccine myth.

Legislators of Texas, in the midst of ever-increasing vaccination exemptions, consider drafting legislation to eliminate exemptions of conscience.

And parents, with the flu season upon us, I implore you to vaccinate your children. The lives of our kids are invaluable. Without this lifesaving preventative medicine, the next victim of this unforgiving killer could be yours.

Clayton Clark

Registered nurse, doctoral student at Duke University

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