Rekha Lakshmanan, the director of advocacy and public policy for The Immunization Partnership, a Houston-based organization that promotes immunization education and pro-immunization public policy, says a persistent minority of Texans struggle to accept vaccines because of the wide amount of unverified, incorrect information about their potential risks. Sometimes, she says, the truth about vaccines, that they're essential to Texas' continued public health, can't rise above the noise of the social media fever swamps.
For some families and individuals it's hard to decipher what is real information and what is not real information, so misinformation continues to have legs. — Rekha Lakshmanan
"Part of the challenge is that there is such a volume of information — easily accessible these days, especially through Facebook and Twitter — that for some families and individuals it's hard to decipher what is real information and what is not real information, so misinformation continues to have legs," Lakshmanan says.
While anti-vaccine groups represent a small percentage of voters, they're passionate about their cause and capable of wielding considerable political influence. In Texas' 2018 primary, Dallas' Jason Villalba, a moderate incumbent Texas House Republican who supports ending non-medical vaccine exemptions for children attending public school, lost his primary to Lisa Luby Ryan. Ryan, an interior design firm owner, drew strong support for Texans for Vaccine Choice, an anti-vaccine Facebook group turned political action committee.
Figuring out a way to limit exemptions is essential to preserving herd immunity from communicable diseases in Texas' schools, according to Lakshmanan. Herd immunity is the resistance to a disease that exists within a community as long as a large enough percentage of people have been vaccinated. Depending on the disease, it usually occurs at a vaccination rate somewhere between 85 and 95 percent. Thirteen percent of the population can make a big difference, especially when groups of anti-vaccination parents are clustered in a community. Over the last several years Texas has seen significant outbreaks of mumps, measles and whooping cough, all diseases that had previously been largely eradicated by vaccines.
"There are schools in Texas that have almost a 50 percent [vaccine] exemption rate," Lakshmanan says. "When you've got almost half the kids in a school having an exemption, that is ripe for an outbreak. That's what we're scared of. That's what we're worried about."
The Immunization Partnership wants the exemption process to be rigorous because exemptions have negative consequences. Lakshmanan says the group wants to make a parent think twice before easily claiming an exemption because of the demands of parenting.
"Parents who are strongly opposed to vaccines, they're going to do what they need to do to get an exemption," Lakshmanan says. "Our concern is those parents who are getting exemptions out of convenience, meaning 'Hey, I don't have time to take my child to the doctor, it's two weeks before school starts. Let me just file an exemption and I'll take care of it later.' If the child starts school and it takes a month or two to follow up, that's a month or two that child is potentially at risk. We've got to make sure that parents have the right information to make that decision."