The battle over vaccines in Texas

TEXAS – Earlier this year, the Texas Department of State Health Services released data showing the number of conscientious exemptions to vaccination continued to rise among public and private school students.

According to DSHS, 64,176, or 1.2%, of public and private school students reported having a conscientious exemption on file for one or more vaccines during the 2018-2019 school year.

Officials with DSHS said that, while overall numbers remain small, the number of conscientious objections sought by parents has steadily risen over the last 10 years.

“That trend is concerning. We'd like it to go the other way,” said Dr. Jennifer Shuford, an infectious disease expert with DSHS. “Vaccines are safe, they're effective and they're important.”

Shuford said nationwide increases in diseases such as measles show why vaccinations are crucial. 

“These vaccine-preventable diseases are not benign. They're still very dangerous,” Shuford said. “I don't want to see any more children hurt trying to convince adults of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, shares his colleague’s concerns. 

“There's nothing conscientious about depriving your child of the right to be protected against serious or deadly infections. Diseases that we thought were long gone, like measles and whooping cough, are going to come roaring back,” Hotez said.

Hotez helps develop vaccines for neglected diseases in underdeveloped countries, so his irritation surfaces quickly when talking about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.

“We've got schools right now in the state of Texas that are actually unsafe for children,” Hotez said.

Hotez and Shuford are concerned with pockets of conscientious exemption rates higher than the statewide average and below what would be considered the threshold for “herd immunity,” which helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

“All it takes is one case of a vaccine-preventable disease to drop into the middle of that and then suddenly there's a large outbreak,” said Shuford.

The highest number of conscientious exemptions appears to be in private schools, such as the Waldorf school in Austin, where 46% of students had one or more exemptions on file -- the highest percentage in the state. In Harris County, there are four private schools showing anywhere between 10% and 25%.

In Dallas County, shows private schools have exemption rates between 18% and 32%. 

State law prohibits school districts from releasing conscientious objection rates for individual campuses. Since many private schools are akin to a district unto themselves, individual campus rates become available by default, while public schools show these rates only on a districtwide basis.


"Do you think it's too easy under Texas law to object?” asked Channel 2 investigator Robert Arnold.

“It's way too easy and we should basically shut it down,” said Hotez.

In 2003, an amendment to a larger health care bill gave parents the ability to object to vaccinations on the basis of conscience. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Texas is one of 15 states that allow personal belief exemptions. In 2015, with the reemergence of diseases such as measles, some lawmakers tried to reverse course.

“As Texans, we were obligated to fight back,” said Jackie Schlegel, founder of Texans for Vaccine Choice.

Schlegel said she formed her group in response to a bill that would have removed the exemption in public schools. The group helped defeat the measure. But Schlegel insists the group's 9,000 members are not anti-vaccine.

“We're simply here to say: 'You know what? As Texans, we're best equipped to make these decisions for ourselves and we don't need a bureaucrat behind a desk doing it for us,'” said Schlegel.

“Is it more distrust of the government than it is vaccine choice?” asked Arnold.

“Well, that's a broad question,” said Schlegel.

Schlegel said the group’s main goal is to ensure that parents remain in control of their children’s health care decisions.

“As a parent, I am obligated to make the best choice for my children,” Schlegel said.

Schlegel’s critics contend her group espouses anti-vaccine propaganda and point to online posts. A July blog post from the group’s webpage discusses a link between the measles vaccine and autism -- something the medical community has debunked many times over. 

“Do you believe the (measles) vaccine causes autism?” asked Arnold.

“Oh, my,” said Schlegel.

Schlegel would not answer directly as to what specific concerns members of her group have when it comes to vaccines. But she said the group is not an anti-vaccine organization. Schlegel said posts on the website represent a variety of viewpoints from the group' members and reiterated that the group focuses on parental choice and preventing medical discrimination against those who choose not to vaccinate their children

“Replace vaccine with anything else in your life and what are you willing to hand over to the government or to the state?” said Schlegel.

Hotez believes arguments about parental choice are a false flag.

“In the state of Texas, we care about our children and we have laws to protect our children and this should be extended to vaccines,” said Hotez.

In addition to fighting against vaccine-related legislation not seen as favorable to the group’s position, Texans for Vaccine Choice also formed a political action committee and has become involved in local election races.

KPRC will continue this story Tuesday at 6.p.m.