Vaccine exemption rates are on the rise across Texas, including at Cy-Fair-area schools.
Local medical experts said the rates at which parents are refusing to vaccinate their children could be dangerous for the community as a whole.
More parents have chosen not to have their children immunized due to “reasons of conscience” since 2003, when the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 89 to allow this in addition to existing exemptions for religious and medical reasons, according to Dr. Richard Lyn-Cook, a pediatrician and medical director of school-based clinics for Harris Health System.
“My main thing is this: vaccines have saved more lives than any medical intervention in the history of mankind, and they continue to do so,” he said. “Your personal beliefs are valid … [b]ut at the same time, you have to realize that the historical data is pretty strong.”
Obtaining a nonmedical exemption entails parents submitting a request via an online form, mail, fax or in-person to the Texas Department of State Health Services with the child’s full name, date of birth and mailing address, according to the DSHS.
In Cy-Fair ISD, the conscientious vaccination exemption rate has increased from 0.62% in 2012-13—or about 680 students—to 0.98% in 2018-19—or about 1,139 students—according to the DSHS.
CFISD Director of Health Services Christiane Bernal said she is not concerned about this increase because the exemptions in the 2018-19 school year still affected less than 1% of students.
“Herd immunity is still achieved, which is the key in reducing the spread of disease, and occurs when enough members of a community are vaccinated to protect those who cannot receive vaccines,” she said. “[Vaccines] protect the health and safety of all members of our community, especially those who cannot receive vaccinations due to medical reasons, such as chemotherapy or life-threatening allergies, the immunocompromised, the very young and the very old.”
In 2018-19, 98.9% of CFISD seventh graders had the MMR vaccine—which protects against measles, mumps and rubella—and 97.5% of kindergartners did, according to the DSHS.
Exemption rates in local private schools tend to be higher than in CFISD. In fact, The Connection School of Houston off House & Hahl Road in Cypress has the highest percentage of students with conscientious exemptions in Harris County at 25.6%.
Head of School Kathleen Wrobleske said school officials ask for immunizations records as part of the admission process, but they ultimately give parents the right to choose whether to vaccinate their children in compliance with state law.
“It’s really nothing we even discuss as a school,” she said. “It’s not a position we take. It’s just an individual parent decision.”
Measles on the rise
The increases in exemption rates seen across the county are a concern for officials with the HHS, especially when it comes to measles. Lyn-Cook said to prevent its rapid spread, at least 95% of the population should be immunized, and more entities are heading below that threshold.
By April 5, the DSHS had confirmed 15 statewide cases of measles this year—up from nine total in 2018 and one in 2017.
Lyn-Cook said he believes vaccination exemptions are increasing because of a 1999 article published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that tied the MMR vaccine to autism spectrum disorder. The article was retracted in 2010.
“We’re not sure if the numbers of autistic kids had actually been increasing or if we had just been diagnosing them better, but regardless it was just much more in the limelight,” Lyn-Cook said.
He said this and other “scientifically unsound” ideas have been amplified by the internet.
Bernal said she believes lawmakers could need to intervene if exemption rates get too high.
“Texas is one of only 17 states that permit philosophical exemptions based on moral, personal or other beliefs,” she said. “This may need to be revisited by legislators if we see a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases and an increase in the issuance of nonmedical exemptions in order to protect our communities throughout the state.”