With back-to-school season in full swing, Texas children are gearing up for a year of learning. But some Texas advocacy groups are concerned by a continued decline in children vaccination rates compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Kindergarten and seventh grade are two critical vaccination years for children to become up-to-date on their recommended shots and boosters. Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services reports 3% to 5% declines in vaccination rates for children in these two age groups, with the largest dips noted in middle schoolers.
During the 2019-20 school year, more than 96% of Texas kindergarteners and 97% of seventh graders were completely vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis, or DTaP. Come the 2021-22 school year, 93% of kindergarteners and 92% of seventh graders were reported as fully vaccinated for TDaP.
“This is concerning that we have kiddos who aren’t fully vaccinated,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of The Immunization Partnership.
While vaccination rate declines have occurred across the board, she said she’s particularly concerned by decreasing MMR vaccine rates, or the shots used to help prevent the spread of measles, mumps and rubella. Measles, in particular, is highly contagious, and Texas reported an outbreak in the virus as recently as 2019, per DSHS data.
In Texas, the state recognizes conscientious and medical exemptions for school immunizations, including religious beliefs. Families opting out of a specific vaccine are required to request, sign and submit a DSHS affidavit form to their child’s school to formally be granted an exemption.
While some exemptions are built on these fronts, Burke said she’s concerned by the rising prevalence of misinformation surrounding vaccines — even those that have been in circulation for decades.
She said she can understand some of the questions people have had about the COVID-19 vaccine; research into a SARS vaccine has been in development for years, but the shot itself is newer to the general public.
But when new cases in diseases like polio and smallpox arise in unvaccinated individuals, she said that transcends from skepticism to a public health concern.
“Skepticism is one thing,” she said. “Asking good questions, talking to your physician, talking to your pediatrician, that’s very important. And I recommend parents do that. But these other vaccines are suffering because of the, just really epic misinformation campaign all over social media.”
As part of The Immunization Partnership’s public advocacy initiatives, Burke said the nonprofit’s focus is on championing public health forums beyond Texas’ main metros to reach communities across the state. Some of those ideas include working with physicians and vaccine providers for pop-up events to discuss the importance of vaccines and any hesitations families have surrounding them.
Texas DSHS also has an immunization explainer page breaking down school and childcare vaccines, as well as low-cost options for uninsured Texas children.
“This isn’t about lobbying for vaccines,” she said. “It’s about advocating for the science and the facts related to vaccines.”