Bill would make it easier for Texas parents to find out number of unvaccinated students at schools
Originally published in the Dallas News
AUSTIN — As more Texas children go to school without receiving vaccines, some lawmakers and advocacy groups want parents to be able to find out how many unvaccinated kids are in their children’s schools.
Plano, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston were identified as national hotspots for nonmedical vaccine exemptions in schools, according to a study published in the Public Library of Science last year. Texas is one of 18 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children because of their philosophical or religious beliefs.
A bill from Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would allow parents to obtain immunization information about a specific school without filing an open records request, which is the current policy.
“If I’m a parent and I’m trying to look at immunization rates to decide where to send my child to school, I can only see exemption rates for the school district — not the school,” said Rekha Lakshmanan, director of advocacy and public policy for the Immunization Partnership, a Houston nonprofit.
Senate Bill 329 would require schools to give their immunization rate to parents who ask for it. They would have to identify, by vaccine type, the number of students without up-to-date vaccinations, the number with nonmedical and medical exemptions and the number who have been admitted with pending immunization documents.
The bill would also require the state health department to produce biennial reports on outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization rates. The Texas Education Agency would have to produce annual reports on the immunization status of students for each school district and school campus.
Lakshmanan said the bill would help children who can’t be vaccinated because of medical conditions.
"We don't want to see vaccine-preventable diseases come back. We could potentially see a public health crisis," she said. "There's a wealth of data that show vaccines are very safe and effective. Higher exemption rates increase the chances of an outbreak."
Lakshmanan said Seliger’s bill would help her organization work toward its goal of educating the public on immunization and dispel misinformation, which she said has lead to more exemptions.
Jackie Schlegel, founder and executive director of the North Texas-based Texans For Vaccine Choice, said she believes the bill will create a frenzy.
“This isn’t about parents requesting information. It’s about creating a witch hunt against certain school campuses, and that’s what we oppose,” she said. “Telling me whether a healthy child has had their vaccines or not is completely irrelevant. We would be open to having a discussion with the bill author.”
Schlegel said her group will oppose any legislation that infringes upon parental rights.
“This isn’t about pro- or anti-vaccine,” she said. “It’s about who’s equipped to make decisions for our children, and most would agree that the decisions are best left to the parents.”
Seliger filed the same bill during the last legislative session in 2017, but it died in committee before receiving a hearing or a vote.
Other immunizations bills that have been filed this session include:
House Bill 1256 by Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, would give first responders and their supervisors access to the state’s immunization registry during a disaster to verify the responder’s vaccination history.
House Bill 1361 by Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, and House Bill 1423 by Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, would require long-term care facilities to establish an immunization rate tracking system of its employees and residents.
Dr. Peter Jay Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, was one of the researchers on the anti-vaccine hotspot study. He said the hotspots will lead to outbreaks of diseases like measles.
“Lawmakers could close the nonmedical exemptions and help prevent future outbreaks,” he said.
Texas has seen seven measles cases this year, four in children who were being vaccinated and had gotten the first of two doses. Measles vaccines are typically given when a child is between 12 and 15 months and 4 and 6 years.
“It’s a fundamental right of childhood to be protected from deadly infectious diseases, and parents cannot strip that right away,” Hotez said. “It is the law that you must put your child in a car seat and a seat belt, and it should be the same with vaccinations.”