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On Tuesday, the House Public Health Committee heard testimony on a bill that would require public schools to keep track of how many of their students are not vaccinated. No identifying information about the students would be shared with the public, only the school’s overall vaccination rate. That way, supporters of the bill say, parents whose children may have compromised immune systems could look for another school where their kid’s health wouldn't be threatened by unvaccinated classmates.
“Parents want the choice about where to enroll their children to lessen the chance of their child contracting a vaccine-preventable disease from an unvaccinated child, ”the bill’s author, Rep. J.D. Sheffield, said on Tuesday. The Gatesville Republican sees House Bill 2249 as a common sense measure, especially given that Texas schools are already required by law to submit the vaccination rates of Kindergarten and 7th graders to the state health department.
But some parents don’t see it that way.
“This bill would cause my family to be vulnerable to speculation, judgement, and, yes, even discrimination,” said Daphne Hager, who testified with her baby strapped to her chest. She said her older child may be the only non-vaccinated child at her Houston school. “I firmly believe it would be easy for parents to deduce that my son is carrying an exemption.”
Rebecca Hardy, director of state policies for the Texans for Vaccine Choice PAC, equated vaccine exemptions to deadly autoimmune diseases.
“If it's truly about a parent's right to know the health status of a campus, then why are we not proposing bills that would give the rates of HIV-positive kids on campus, or hepatitis B-positive kids?" she asked the committee.
Those kids, however, would actually be the ones threatened most by unvaccinated children. Two different parents who testified against the bill suggested those kinds of kids, ones with weakened immune systems, should stay home if they’re so vulnerable.
While some parents shared their fears of bullying and discrimination to the committee, others insisted the bill could prevent a fatal scenario for some families.
Lisa Pomeroy, representing the Texas Pediatric Society, told the committee the bill could work as an actual lifesaver for her 5-year-old daughter, who is diagnosed with leukemia. Pomery said she’s already heard from parents at her daughter’s new school that they’ve chosen not to vaccinate their kindergartners. While her daughter is now in remission, she still has a vulnerable immune system, Pomeroy said.
“I don’t want to put my daughter in a dangerous environment,” she said, through tears. “I want to keep her safe, and this information will let me decide what school is best for her.”
Representatives from the Texas Parent Teacher Association, the Texas Nurses Association, and Texas Medical Association also spoke in support of the bill.
The discussion over how much data on vaccination rates Texas schools should release comes as the state faces a resurgence of anti-vaccine groups. While state's vaccination rate is still relatively high, the number of parents choosing to skip vaccinations has skyrocketed over the past decade. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, there were around 2,300 children with non-medical exemptions to school immunization laws for “reasons of conscience” in 2003, when such exemptions were first introduced. Now, Texas has nearly 45,000 kids carrying exemption slips.
Many epidemiologists say they're concerned by this explosion in unvaccinated kids. In December, Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, told Science magazine that "Texas is now the center of the anti-vaxxer movement.”
Experts like Hotez warn that as the population of unvaccinated children grows, so does the likelihood of long-eradicated diseases (although, still found in some developing countries) reappearing — and spreading like wildfire. It's not just speculation. On Wednesday, the state health department announced that Mumps, a disease prevented by the childhood MMR vaccine, had hit a 20-year high in Texas. Hotez told Science he predicts Texas could be hit by a major measles outbreak as soon as early 2018. And bills like Sheffield’s probably wouldn't do anything to stop it.
What Texas truly needs, Hotez and other Texas disease experts argue, is a law similar to the one California passed in 2015, one that threw out all personal and religious exceptions from child vaccination laws. Of course, this bill only became law after the state was rocked by a massive measles outbreak (ignited by a single unvaccinated child) that sickened more than a hundred people.
Some Texas officials, like Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood and GOP State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, have also grown more vocal about their distrust of vaccines in recent years. It may help that President Donald Trump is on their side. Trump has tweeted more than once about the disproven link between vaccinations and autism and even invited the country’s top anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist, Andrew Wakefield, to his inaugural ball.
Shefield's bill, a small push against Texas' growing population of unvaccinated kids, was left pending in committee Thursday evening.