Fort Worth is a “hot spot” for children without vaccinations, and that’s dangerous

Immunization is one of the most important things a parent can do to protect their children's health
Immunization is one of the most important things a parent can do to protect their children's health Centers for Disease Control

Calls to protect our freedoms and liberty sound patriotic and noble. But when they’re aimed at encouraging parents to avoid immunizing their school-aged children, they’re downright dangerous.

We’re urging parents of children heading back to school in several weeks to listen to the medical community, and reject the false, though sometimes sincere, cries from the “anti-vaxxers” who are encouraging risky behavior.

There is no sound medical information that supports their often-cited belief that the shots children receive cause autism and other illnesses. In fact, the opposite is true. Without the recommended vaccinations for measles, whooping cough, mumps, and other preventable illnesses, children will be vulnerable to diseases that can kill them. And unvaccinated children threaten others around them by spreading illness.

Texas vaccination laws

In Texas, school children, beginning in kindergarten, are required to receive at least seven vaccinations identified by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

Since 1972 Texas children have been able to opt out of the shots and still attend public schools if they have religious or medical reasons. In 2003 state lawmakers expanded the exemptions to include reasons of conscience.

Since then the number of Texas parents who’ve embraced the anti-vaccine movement and opted out has exploded, setting off alarms in the medical community — and here.

Fort Worth-Tarrant a hot spot

In 2003, 3,000 Texas students said “no” to the shots. Today that number has grown almost 19-fold, to more than 56,000, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s a conservative estimate, because it doesn’t include some children who are home-schooled or attend private schools.

“We are extremely vulnerable to a measles outbreak in Texas,” Dr. Peter Hotez told this Editorial Board.

Hotez, based in Houston, is director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, and holds a number of other prestigious medical positions.

He recently co-authored a study on vaccine exemptions published by the Public Library of Science Journal of Medicine, known as PLOS Medicine. It named Texas as one of 18 states that allows the non-medical exemptions, and identified Tarrant County and Fort Worth as national “hot spots.”

The study found that parents of at least 518 kindergarteners in Tarrant County schools last year decided not to get preventative shots for their children.

“All of this is based on phoney information,” Hotez said.

Growing anti-vaxxer movement

The anti-vaxxers tend to be better educated, more affluent individuals, and politically active.

Hotez says Texas communities like Fort Worth are now at great risk for a measles outbreak, which can spread like wildfire and kill small children. It was thought to be eradicated in 2000, but there have been numerous measles clusters because of children who haven’t been vaccinated.

In 2014, a measles outbreak in Disneyland infected at least 145 people from across the country, then moved into Canada and Mexico.

Earlier this year, in North Texas’ Ellis County, health officials scrambled to contain at least six cases of measles affecting people who hadn’t been immunized.

Hotez’s study says children not given the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are 35 times more likely to contract measles than a vaccinated child. A child not immunized for pertussis is three times more likely to be stricken.

Hotez, who has a 25-year-old autistic daughter, says he’s been threatened on social media by anti-vaxxers who want Texas lawmakers to further eliminate policies that encourage or require immunization.

A group, Texans for Vaccine Choice, is among those that targeted Republican primary candidates who support immunization and tried to defeat them. They’ll be at the legislature again in January, hoping to further their agenda.

Texans need to make sure they protect the health of our children and our communities by rejecting the anti-vaxxer dogma and their legislation.

We need greater involvement by medical professionals to convince skeptics of the benefits of vaccines. Parents need to be told of the low-cost, no-cost options for immunization. Faith groups, neighborhood clinics and celebrities should use their influence to reach the under-vaccinated.

We know there will be blowback from this message, but it’s important we all speak out. While we’re sympathetic to families who believe their children have been harmed by vaccines, there just isn’t solid medical evidence to prove that.

The consequences of allowing the emotional anti-vaxxer message to overtake good judgment could be life-threatening.