Local leaders concerned after multiple cases of measles reported in Harris County

BELLAIRE, Texas – As the number of measles cases in Texas reaches seven, local leaders, school officials and public health leaders came together to discuss the importance of vaccinations and encourage parents to urge lawmakers to eliminate non-medical vaccine exemptions, citing that it is contributing to the outbreak.

“We’re getting this perfect storm of measles cases happening at the very worst time possible," Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development Director and vaccine scientist for Baylor College of Medicine, said.

The CDC says that the measles is so contagious that one infected person can sicken nine out of 10 people who don't have the vaccine.

“Measles was eliminated in the United States back in the year 2000, so we should have zero cases of measles in Texas, but instead we’re seeing these numbers grow," Allison Winnike, The Immunization Partnership CEO, said.

Health officials are reporting more than 100 confirmed cases of the measles nationwide. In Washington state, more than 50 cases have been reported. Here in Texas, officials say around seven have been confirmed. Harris County Public Health official said that number is expected to rise.

“2015, 2016 and 2017 having one case in Texas each year, and last year having nine cases, having six already [in 2019], and it’s only six weeks into the season, that’s a significant jump and that’s something that concerns us," Dr. Umair Shah, Harris County Public Health executive director, said.

A resurgence of a disease 19 years after it was thought to have been eradicated within U.S. borders has caused leaders to act out of concern.

“This was about the easiest prediction I ever made, and I say that because measles is among the most contagious viruses we know, and we know because once the vaccine coverage starts to decline the first break-through infection you always see is measles," Hotez said.

Hotez said researchers mapped out areas where many parents opted out of vaccinations and said those areas are the ones with the highest concentration of measles outbreaks.

“We really need parents to step up and comply and follow their health care providers directions on immunizations," Gwen Johnson, Houston ISD director of Health Services, said.

Officials talked with students at Pin Oak Middle School. HISD is partnering with doctors, public health officials to urge lawmakers in Austin to eliminate non-medical vaccine exemptions.

“Last year, a whopping 57,000 school children had non-medical exemptions to our vaccine laws," Winnike said, saying that those children are the ones spreading the disease.

“In the year 2000 the anti-vaccine lobby pressured the Texas legislators to relax the immunization laws and create loopholes for parent who did not want to vaccinate their children,"  Winnike said.

Scientists, like Hotez, blame the uptick on irrational fear.

"With more than almost 500 anti-vaccination websites out there so anytime a parent puts the word vaccine into a search engine, more likely than not an anti-vaccine website will come up. There are not anti-vaccine books that have come out alleging vaccines cause serious things, there are phony documentaries," Hotez said. "I'm a scientist at Baylor College of Medicine. I develop at Texas Children's hospital. I develope new vaccines for poverty related, neglected tropical diseases...But I'm also the parent of an adult daughter who is now 26, her name is Rachel, who has autism. And I've just written a new book with a very straight title, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism."

Hotez said that there have now been much more research on vaccines and say there is no plausible link.

“We now have evidence from studies of over 1 million children showing that absolutely no vaccine causes autism,” Hotez said.

“I’m here as a public health official to say that is incorrect not the way to go and that is potentially dangerous to our community," Shah said.

Meanwhile, La Porte ISD is dealing with its own scare. Officials sent a letter to parents Tuesday night that one kindergarten student may have it. Officials said they would not be able to confirm for a couple weeks. Meanwhile, officials urge parents who believe their children may have symptoms to call their doctors and not take them into the emergency room without alerting the hospital that the child may have an infectious disease.

“There’s so many kids here. You know, and some kids can’t get vaccinated so what happens to those kids because you don’t want to vaccinate your child," said La Porte parent Stormi Morgan.

For other parents, it is more about principle.

“Ultimately, it should be the parent’s choice," said another parent.