Among the state’s most populous counties, Travis County has the highest percentage of schoolchildren who are exempted from vaccinations for nonmedical reasons, according to a report released Wednesday.
The Immunization Partnership, an Austin-based nonprofit that promotes vaccinations, reported that in the 2015-16 school year, 3,844 kindergarten through 12th-grade students in Travis County, or roughly 2.3 percent of students, filed nonmedical exemptions to vaccinations that help prevent such diseases as polio, hepatitis, meningitis, mumps, measles and rubella. Hays and Williamson counties are third and fifth on the list, respectively.
“It is really a no-brainer,” state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said during a news conference Wednesday. “We can prevent diseases. We can prevent death if we have appropriate immunizations.”
Statewide last school year, 44,716 students were exempted from at least one vaccine requirement for nonmedical reasons, which include moral, religious or personal beliefs. The latest number is a 19-fold increase from the 2003-04 school year, when nonmedical exemptions were first allowed. Nonmedical exemptions tend to surpass the number of medical exemptions each year.
Howard has filed bills to be considered next year that would require students to opt-out of the state’s immunization registry called ImmTrac rather than opt-in and physicians to counsel parents on vaccinations before they obtain an exemption.
Jamie Schanbaum, a 28-year-old Austin resident who attended the event Wednesday, said that if parents knew more about vaccinations, they wouldn’t avoid them. Schanbaum lost her legs and fingers to meningitis eight years ago when she was a University of Texas student, she said. She successfully pushed for a law in 2011 that requires every entering Texas college student to receive a meningococcal vaccine or opt out.
“Like most people, I didn’t know what meningitis was or what it could lead to. I watched my limbs turn from red rash to purple to black. I didn’t know if I was going to survive. If people knew about meningitis more, I don’t think there would be a question to opt-out of the vaccine,” she said.
Last year, the Home School Legal Defense Association opposed a similar bill that would have required physicians to counsel parents before deciding against vaccines, saying that it would diminish the parental rights of home-schooled children. The bill, filed by Howard, didn’t get a committee hearing — the first step in the process of moving a bill forward
Some anti-vaccine organizations and parents believe vaccines cause autism, although studies don’t support that assertion. A 1998 research paper that triggered a worldwide scare over autism and vaccines has been debunked, and the journal that published the article has retracted it.
Objections to the vaccines include concerns about the safety of their ingredients, the frequency of vaccinations in small children and side effects.
Messages left with Texas Health Freedom Coalition, Texans for Vaccine Choice and Parents Requesting Open Vaccine Education weren’t returned Wednesday.
Public health officials stress that while vaccines are safe, none is completely effective or free of side effects.
State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, also has filed four bills related to vaccinations, including one that would allow teens 14 and older to provide their own consent to obtain the vaccination against the human papillomavirus, which can cause throat cancer in men and cervical cancer in women.
“The science is 100 percent on the side of those who advocate for widespread immunizations to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases,” Davis said.