Anti-vaxxer movement spurs call to post immunization stats by school
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle
AUSTIN - The number of Texas schoolchildren who have forgone medical vaccinations has soared in recent years, leading parents fearful of outbreaks or who have children with weakened immune systems to urge state lawmakers to make school-level immunization data public.
Parents who opt against vaccinating are pushing back against calls for increased transparency, saying they want to protect their children's privacy and are hoping members of the conservative Senate will take their side.
While most parents in Texas vaccinate their children, the number of parents opting out of immunizations for non-medical reasons is on the rise. Since Texas changed its laws to allow parents to opt out citing a conscientious objection, the number of unvaccinated children has shot up more than 1,700 percent in 13 years, to 45,000 from 2,300. In response, parents and health advocates are backing an effort to increase public reporting on how many students who have skipped vaccines attend each school.
Currently, that data is housed at the state level and available via an open-records request. County and school district-level data also is available online.
House Bill 2249 would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to publish school-by-school data that would indicate the total number of students who forgo vaccinations, including those who opt out by choice, such as a religious objection. No names or identifying information would be listed.
Advocates for publishing the data say the information would offer parents insight into their child's school and help them weigh whether to switch, particularly for parents of medically fragile children like Riki Graves' daughter, Juliana. Now 3, she received a new heart at 18 days old, and doctors say she will need to attend a school where least 95 percent of the students are immunized.
"My job as a transplant mom is to protect that organ," said Graves as she drove from her home in Sugar Land to Austin where she plans to testify before the House Public Health Committee on Tuesday. "We have the data … there's no reason not to publish it."
Opponents say there are plenty of reasons, including children's medical privacy.
"If this is truly about keeping children safe, we have to have that honest conversation about keeping all people safe. It puts a target on the backs of children whose parents have chosen to opt out for various different reasons," said Jackie Schlegel, a mother of three and executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a grass-roots parent group that has ballooned in recent years as the movement against vaccinating children has gained traction. The group is planning a rally at the Capitol on Thursday, dubbed the "freedom fight."
"At schools where you do have a high number of opt-out, we are creating a witch hunt against families, and that's just unacceptable," Schlegel said.
Most schools throughout Texas have few students without vaccinations, but data show that families that opt out tend to do so in clusters. For example, at Austin Waldorf School, 15 miles from the state Capitol, 40 percent of its student population is missing at least one vaccination.
The opt-out movement taps fears from parents that vaccines can lead to long-term ailments, such as autism. Medical doctors and experts say those theories have been discredited.
"To protect their children's sensitive feelings from the choice that their parents have made, someone else's child must die," said Jason Sabo, a lobbyist for the Immunization Partnership, a pro-vaccine group that has sprung up in the wake of the opt-out movement. "They're making the argument that other people's children are expendable to protect their, in my opinion, misplaced paranoia."
Legislators in the House of Representatives passed an identical bill increasing reporting in 2015. The measure never got a hearing in the Senate.
HB 2249 is one of more than a dozen bills by either sides looking to change state laws regarding immunizations, including a proposal to require parents to take an online course before opting against vaccinating their children.