Health & Science

In Wake Of Measles Cases, Health Advocates Want Texas To Change Its Vaccine Exemption Law

As more people stop vaccinating, more kids get sick.

Dr. Peter Hotez speaks alongside health officials and advocates at Pin Oak Middle School on February 13, 2019.

Following an announcement by La Porte ISD that an elementary student is suspected of having contracted measles, local health advocates stopped by a Houston ISD school Wednesday to urge Texas lawmakers to revisit the state’s vaccination laws.

Among them were representatives with Houston ISD, Harris County Public Health, Baylor College of Medicine, and advocacy groups Children at Risk and Immunization Partnership. The group spoke one at a time, asking parents to vaccinate their children and for lawmakers to reconsider the state’s non-medical exemption program for parents who don’t want to vaccinate. 

The student suspected of having measles at La Porte joins three others in Harris County and four more statewide who have caught measles in 2019. Texas saw only a single case of measles in 2015 and 2016 each, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said the number of measles cases so far this year may indicate more vaccine-preventable illnesses to come.

“We know once vaccine coverage starts to decline the first breakthrough infection you always see is measles,” Hotez said. “Measles is like a biomarker of declines in vaccine coverage. It’s a biomarker that we’re not doing our job in getting our kids vaccinated.”

The resurgence of measles, considered to have been eradicated in the United States in 2000, has stoked concerns about vaccination rates. Along with recent measles cases, advocates point to school closures due to flu outbreaks as a signal fewer parents are chasing to vaccinate. At least a dozen schools across Texas have closed for multiple days this year because of too many sick students and teachers, Texas Standard reports.

The leading cause behind parents not vaccinating their children is a movement based on misinformation, largely stemming from a debunked and fraudulent study linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, according to advocates.

Hotez attributes the spreading of false information to not knowing the truth and a natural concern for their kids — and the fact you can also make some money writing a book about it. 

Changing the laws

In Texas, health advocates largely blame outbreaks on the state’s non-medical exemption rule, which lets a parent opt-out of school-required vaccines for reasons of personal belief. A recent report by the Immunization Partnership puts the rate of non-medical exemptions 25 times higher for the 2017-2018 school year than when the law went into effect in 2003.

Gwen Johnson, the Director of Health Services for Houston ISD, said parents need more accurate data about vaccines as misinformation spreads.

“I think people do take for granted that we’ve been doing vaccines for years and we’re just going to keep doing what our parents did et cetera,” Johnson said. “They may need some more updated knowledge around that that they can share in their own communities.”

Advocates worry increasing exemption rates threaten children who are too young to be vaccinated, children in between their first and second MMR shots, or people who have certain medical conditions. Having enough people vaccinated keeps preventable diseases from spreading when they are introduced, an effect called herd immunity.

To make vaccine rates more transparent, Democratic State Representative Gene Wu of Houston is drafting legislation that would require childcare facilities to report their vaccination rates and “to let parents know what percentage of their students at the facility are actually vaccinated,” he told Houston Matters. “This will help parents make a decision about where they want to send their kids.”

Officials at Harris County Public Health said if you think your child may have measles or another highly-contagious disease contact your health care provider before arriving as a sick child can infect others even just in a waiting room.

Listen to the full Houston Matters interview with State Representative Gene Wu in the audio below: 

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Davis Land

Senior Producer

Davis Land is a senior producer at Houston Public Media. He cut his teeth at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, MA and at WBUR in Boston. His work has appeared on various public radio programs and podcasts including Texas Standard, Here and Now, and Marketplace. Davis is a graduate...

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