New Texas Bill Would Make School Vaccination Rates More Accessible
House Bill 2249 would require reports of vaccine-preventable outbreaks
If your child had a weak immune system, would you want to know the vaccine rates at their school?
House Bill 2249 would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to provide reports every other year on vaccine-preventable outbreaks and the number of students at public schools who have vaccine exemptions.
“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,” J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville and the bill’s author, said.
Lisa Pomeroy, a general pediatrician in Lubbock, spoke to the committee about this issue. Her daughter is in remission from leukemia, but remains immunocompromised because of the chemotherapy she must continue to receive.
“I don’t want to put my daughter in a dangerous environment,” said Pomeroy. “I want to keep her safe, and this information will let me decide what school is best for her.”
Jason Terk, M.D., a Cook Children's pediatrician in Keller and on the Committee on Federal Government Affairs for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says current school district information is not specific enough.
"The parent of a child with special needs, such as one with cancer or any disease which makes him or her more vulnerable to infections, needs to know if the school that child may attend is safe," Dr. Terk said.
"Currently the percentage of exemptions per district is available, but that information is not that helpful when you consider that many school districts cover large areas and may have a large number of individual schools," he added.
For example, the Keller ISD has 23 elementary schools, 6 intermediate schools and 4 high schools spread over a very large area.
"Knowing the district level exemption rate is not very helpful when the exemption rates may vary widely across all of the many schools," Dr. Terk said. "Risk is specific to the environment that your child learns in and that is what parents need to know about."
Since 2003, Texas has allowed parents to decline state immunization requirements for “reasons of conscience.” At the time, 3,000 kids were listed as exempt. In the 2015-2016 school year, the Texas Department of State Health Services reports 44,716 children from kindergarten to twelfth grade claimed exemption.
Of the state’s 10 largest school districts, three have vaccine exemption rates higher than the statewide rate of 0.84 percent:
- Austin ISD (Travis) – 1,582 students exempted (2.02 percent exempted)
- Katy ISD (Harris) – 866 students exempted (1.22 percent exempted)
- North East ISD (Bayer) – 657 (0.97 percent exempted)
Dallas ISD is eighth on the list with 497 students and 0.34 percent exempted, followed by Tarrant County as ninth with 197 students and 0.24 percent exempted.
Opponents of the bill say they fear families that opt not to have their children vaccinated will face harassment. Sheffield counters by saying no identifying information would be included in the information.
Keeping vaccination rates relatively high (somewhere around 90-95 percent) helps protect all children (vaccinated or not) from diseases, Justin Smith, M.D., a pediatrician at Cook Children’s, said. In addition, when outbreaks occur, even children who are vaccinated become at risk for contracting disease due to the number of possible exposures.
“At first glance it may not seem that concerning. If you look at an individual school or district, the percentage of vaccinated children in those districts is still really high,” Dr. Smith said. “My bigger concern, and what keeps me up at night, is in the schools where unvaccinated children, for some reason, are clustered together. What if an outbreak occurs in these schools?”