Numbers of Unvaccinated Kids Still Rising, Thanks Partly to Texas' Libertarian Streak

Despite vaccinations being in literally everyone's best interest, the Texas Legislature didn't pass Dallas State Representative Jason Villalba's bill this year that would've ended conscientious exemptions from vaccinations. As kids around the state get ready for the new school year, they will, just as they have in the past, only be required to get their scheduled vaccinations if their parents are totally, 100 percent cool with it. Should parents have any doubt whatsoever about the vaccines, they can just fill out a request on the state health authority's website and get a form to opt out.

Dr. Jason Terk, the president of the Texas Pediatrics Society, says he doesn't think Texas is ready to dump conscientious objections, despite the obvious benefits of doing so.

"I think that it would be a very good thing for us to have the elimination of non-medical exemptions. From my point of view, it's very clear that, if you're a data-driven person and you're evidence based in your outlook, that the benefits of vaccination are overwhelming. If we stop doing what we need to be doing, then we have unnecessary outbreaks of preventable diseases that can kill kids," he says. "How likely is [ending conscientious objection] in Texas? I think it's pretty unlikely. In my opinion, and I can tell you from my own personal experience as legislative chair of the Texas Pediatrics Society before becoming president, we are a very libertarian state. We believe in individual rights. We take a dim view of the state telling us what to do."

According to the latest numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services, 40,997 Texas school kids' parents claimed conscientious objections from vaccinations during the 2014-2015 school year. That's about 0.8 percent. The school year before, 2013-14, 38,197 weren't vaccinated for non-medical reasons. The 2014-2015 rate is about triple that of 2006-2007, the earliest year for which there is comprehensive data available on the TDSHS website. Taken as a whole, those numbers are pretty good, but  some pockets in the state have much higher exemption rates. Calvert ISD, a small district about an hour away from Temple, serves 143 kids — 124 didn't get all of their shots in 2013-2014. Coram Deo Academy in Denton County has a non-medical exemption rate of greater than 12 percent.

Terk says that a high risk for herd immunity being compromised probably doesn't happen until about 10 percent of kids aren't getting immunized, but parents who are likely to claim an exemption are often clustered together.

"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, about 90 minutes northwest of Dallas. In 2013, children at the anti-vaccine church, which is part of televangelist Kenneth Copeland's empire, suffered through an outbreak of measles, a disease thought to be basically eradicated in the 20th century in the United States.

Some pediatricians are fighting back against non-vaccinating parents. The Austin Regional Clinic, one of the largest group practices in the Austin area, no longer accepts kids of non-vaccinating parents as patients. Neither does Terk.

"When we as physicians provide a medical service, that medical service is intended to protect or to treat that individual. 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 says

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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