The latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services aren't great. Texas parents are still taking advantage of a Rick Perry-sized loophole the then-governor created in the state's requirements for school kids.
For the 2015-2016 school year, parents of nearly 45,000 school-aged kids filed for non-medical exemptions from vaccines for their kids, a nine percent increase over the previous year. Non-medical exemptions, available to anyone who says they want one, are up 1,900 percent since Perry first permitted non-medical exemptions for reasons other than religion in 2003.
Close to home, local districts have some of the highest non-vaccination rates in the state. More than two percent of Frisco ISD, 1,077 students, skipped out on at least one vaccination thanks to their parents during the 2015-2016 school year, as did 936 kids in Plano ISD (1.76 of those kids enrolled in the district). Dallas ISD saw a year over year increase, but still fares better than many North Texas districts, with less than one half of one percent (497) of Dallas ISD kids not getting their shots.
“The trend is going in the wrong direction,” Anna C. Dragsbaek, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership said Thursday. “If it continues, our schools and communities will be left vulnerable to outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and other preventable diseases that carry potentially serious complications.”
So is this putting kids at risk? Not exactly. Dr. Jason Terk, former president of the Texas Pediatrics Society, told the Observer during an interview in 2015, described the concept of herd immunity. That means a community's general immunity to a disease, a defense formed because a high percentage of that community has acquired immunity through a vaccine. Herd immunity can begin to break down when about 10 percent of the kids on a given campus aren't vaccinated.
Because parents who are likely not to vaccinate tend to cluster together, he says, localized outbreaks can be a risk even as statewide vaccination rates remain at a safe level. "Birds of a feather flock together," Terk says. "You're going to have enclaves of populations that by their very nature create their own level of vulnerability. You're going to have pockets of communities that choose not to vaccinate and those are the places where disease outbreaks will occur, such as what happened with the church group a few years back."
That "church group" was the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, a town about a hundred miles northwest of Dallas. The church preaches against vaccinations and in 2013 suffered through an outbreak of measles, a disease thought to have been effectively eradicated from the United States during the 20th century.
Vaccination rates at some private schools in DFW are putting kids at risk for an outbreak. At Coram Deo Academy of Collin County, more than 12 percent of students have missed at least one vaccination. At Coram Deo's Denton County campus, the non-vaccination rate is even higher, at nearly 14 percent. Alliance Christian Academy in Fort Worth has one of the highest anti-vax rates in the state, at 18 percent.
During the last legislative session, Dallas Republican state Representative Jason Villalba pushed a bill that would've ended non-religious exemptions from vaccines. His billed failed and Terk said a similar bill had little chance of passing in the near future. "How likely is [ending conscientious objection] in Texas? I think it's pretty unlikely," he said. "We take a dim view of the state telling us what to do."
In the meantime, some doctors are taking measures into their own hands. The Austin Regional Clinic, one of the largest group practices in the Austin area, does not accept kids of non-vaccinating parents as patients. Neither does Terk.
"Providing a vaccination to a child is the only medical service that we do that benefits the rest of society. It's a really important thing that we do, and it's a shame that we have to have reality remind us of what the right thing to do is, but, unfortunately, that's where we are," Terk said.