Austin ranks among the top 15 “hotspots” nationally for vaccine exemptions, making children not vaccinated vulnerable to contagious diseases, according to a new public health study.
The study found Austin — along with Houston, Fort Worth, and Plano — was among the nation’s cities with the highest number of kindergartners not getting vaccinated for nonmedical reasons.
The new information illuminates an ongoing battle involving political ideology, science, public safety and parental rights that has been waged in Texas for more than a decade.
Overall, most Austinites — and Texans generally — get vaccinations for their kids. Of the 389,999 kindergartners enrolled in Texas schools in 2015-16, only 1.6 percent did not have the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, according to the study.
But the number of Texas parents who have opted for a nonmedical exemption for vaccinations for their children has been steadily increasing — and in some Austin schools as many as 45 percent of kindergartners are not vaccinated.
The study, titled “The State of the Antivaccine Movement in the United States” and published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, ranks Travis County as having the 13th highest number of nonmedical exemptions for vaccinations.
The report ties measles outbreaks to areas with lower vaccination rates.
Public school students in Texas 5 or older generally must be vaccinated against at least seven diseases, including polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, rubella and mumps.
But in 2003, the Legislature changed state law to allow parents to forgo vaccinating their children if they object to the practice because of “reasons of conscience, including a religious belief.”
“If your child is vaccinated against childhood diseases, chances are he’ll be OK,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist who is an author the study and is director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston.
But babies who are siblings of older children attending school with a large number of unvaccinated children could be vulnerable. Measles is highly contagious and can travel on inert objects like textbooks, he said.
Hotez said the number of Texas cities ranking in the top 15 nationally for vaccine exemptions reflects a “very aggressive and well-organized anti-vaccine lobbying effort.”
Public health experts said the number of vaccination opt-outs in the Austin area — 413 kindergartners in the 2016-17 school year, not counting kids who are home-schooled — is due to a lack of trust in government and the pharmaceutical industry.
Socially conservative lawmakers belonging to the Freedom Caucus oppose rules mandating vaccines. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a caucus member summed up the issue last year in an interview with “VICE News Tonight”: “I believe that in the hierarchy of rights, that liberty is higher than safety and security.”
Austin’s ranking reflects “a real problem,” said Dr. Philip Huang, medical director of Austin Public Health. “Once you get more people not being vaccinated, it puts the entire community at higher risk.”
“Because we’ve been so successful, there are fewer doctors, nurses and parents who have seen the tragic consequences of these vaccine-preventable diseases,” he said. “Parents now wonder if they’re necessary, they see the discomfort of their kids getting vaccinated. But they haven’t seen the tragic consequences in years past.”
Research in 1998 that suggested a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, called MMR, launched a worldwide vaccine scare. The work led by Andrew Wakefield, who now lives in Austin, has been discredited, and he was stripped of his medical license in England.
Huang and Hotez each speculated that Wakefield’s activism could contribute to Austin’s ranking. Attempts to reach Wakefield were unsuccessful. Texans for Vaccine Choice, which has led the way in political fights against vaccinations, did not respond to a request for comment.
According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, kindergarten vaccination rates at Austin-area public school districts are over 95 percent.
Here are Travis County schools with the lowest rates of measles-mumps-rubella vaccination coverage for 2016-17:
• Austin Waldorf School: 55 percent
• Austin Discovery School: 68 percent
• Headwaters School: 71 percent
• Texas School for the Deaf: 75 percent
• Primrose School of Bee Cave: 76 percent
• Chaparral Star Academy: 79 percent
• St. Theresa’s Catholic School: 79 percent
• Montessori for All: 80 percent
• Wayside Schools: 81 percent
• Veritas Academy: 81 percent