Unvaccinated children in Texas schools up 19-fold
Number of students exempt for non-medical reasons hits 45,000. Private schools, clusters concern pediatricians.
As a new school year begins, a 12-year-long trend of parents refusing to vaccinate their children may put your child at risk.
That’s the concern of Justin Smith, M.D., a pediatrician at Cook Children’s. The Houston Chronicle reported “the number of children whose parents decline vaccinations for non-medical reasons rose nearly 9 percent last school year.”
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. According to the Chronicle, that number has since multiplied to 45,000 last year.
“If you look at the statistics, you see a lot of geographic clusters of people who choose not to vaccinate at all or to under-vaccinate their children,” Dr. Smith said. “I suspect that is true across our area as well, but I also suspect that there is clustering according to other factors as well: socioeconomic status, church/religious affiliation, etc. Populations where there are multiple families who choose not to vaccinate would be particularly susceptible in an outbreak situation. Let’s pray we don’t get there.”
Keeping vaccination rates relatively high (somewhere around 90 percent) actually helps protect all children (vaccinated or not) from diseases, Dr. Smith said. In addition, when outbreaks occur, even children who are vaccinated become at risk for contracting disease due to the number of possible exposures.
Dr. Smith points to an NBC5 report last year on vaccination rates in local school districts that he found not only enlightening, but a bit frightening to him. The news focused on the growing number of vaccine exemptions in three public school districts (Frisco, Plano and Lewisville).
“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.”
In the report, what’s happening in our area includes:
- Thirty schools in the DFW area have vaccination rates below 96 percent.
- Five schools in the DFW area have vaccination rates below 90 percent.
- The highest unvaccinated rate in our area is around 13 percent. The highest in the state is near 50 percent.
Why does it matter?
“If you read the names of the schools, you’ll see a trend,” Dr. Smith said. “They are private schools. They are schools that have a high likelihood of having people go overseas for mission trips or other opportunities. Traveling to countries where diseases are more common increases the likelihood of bringing a disease back to school. Waiting at school are their unvaccinated friends and their vaccinated friends who could even be at risk as the number of cases rise. Outbreaks are possible.”
Do you think this is far-fetched?
Dr. Smith points to the Tarrant County measles outbreak from 2013 that basically had all the characteristics that he’s describing. A large group of unvaccinated people, grouped together based on their faith that contracted measles from a visitor who brought measles into the United States after traveling overseas.
What can you do?
- Get the best start to protection by vaccinating your child.
- Be aware of the vaccination percentages of your child’s school, your church and your social community.
- Be especially cautious when your child’s unvaccinated contacts return from overseas travel. If they are sick, stay away.
About the source
Justin Smith is a pediatrician and the Medical Advisor for Digital Health for Cook Children's in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has an active community on both Facebook and Twitter as @TheDocSmitty and writes weekly for Cook Children's checkupnewsroom.com. His interest in communications started when he realized that his parents were relying more on the internet for medical information. He believes that strategic use of social media and technology by pediatricians to connect with families can deepen their relationship and provide a new level of convenience for both of their busy lifestyles. Dr. Smith’s innovative pediatric clinic, a pediatric clinic “designed by you,” is set to open in Trophy Club in the fall of 2016.