The use of vaccines to prevent diseases is one of the greatest public health achievements in recent history. The CDC has estimated that the vaccination of each US birth cohort prevents 20 million cases of disease, and 42,000 deaths.
Despite this well-established scientific fact, vaccines still face a great deal of scrutiny from those on both the left and the right who are steadfastly unwilling to accept science. We’ve seen this most recently in the current cohort of Republican presidential candidates, where actual medical doctors are continually repudiating science in favor of “individual choice,” because that’s what they think the voters want to hear. But the consequences aren’t just seen in political rhetoric — destructive anti-science beliefs are leading to substantive public health threats. And one of the worst places for that threat is right here in Texas.
An article from Dr. Peter J. Hotez of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response published in TribTalk this week highlighted just how great this threat has become. According to data from the CDC released last month, Texas now ranks last in the number of young children who have received their recommended vaccinations. Only 64% of Texas children are fully immunized, which is an 8% drop from 2013. To put that into perspective, the CDC’s immunization goal for the most common vaccine-preventable diseases stands at 95%. That’s the amount needed to achieve herd immunity, where enough of the population is immune to a contagious disease that it is unable to spread.
Why is Texas’ vaccination rate so low? A major reason is the Texas law that allows parents broad license to opt-out of mandatory vaccinations due to their “personal beliefs”, yet still send their kids to public schools. It is a law that Rick Perry signed back in 2003, and its results have been devastating. Perry’s law made it much easier for parents to opt out of vaccines, and since then the number of “personal belief” exemptions has skyrocketed. The number of vaccine exemptions in the 2014-2015 school year alone was nearly 41,000. As that number continues to rise, that means that more and more kids are not being properly protected against disease, putting more and more people at risk.
Texas has already seen the results of decreased vaccination. Two years ago, a megachurch in Dallas that discouraged vaccinations fell victim to a measles outbreak that affected over 25 people. These numbers will continue to grow, and that is a scary thought. As Hotez points out in the TribTalk piece, a recent study of the global burden of disease found that, “in 2013, measles, whooping cough, and meningitis killed 82,100, 56,400, and 121,400 children under the age of 5 respectively.” Just because these infectious diseases are common in childhood doesn’t mean they’re not serious. For example, even if measles doesn’t lead to death, it can cause seizures, deafness, and permanent brain damage.
The supposed link between vaccines and autism has already been thoroughly debunked. Vaccines don’t cause autism. But vaccines do cause children to be safe from deadly diseases. It is irresponsible and unsafe for a parent to put a child at risk for death based on their own non-fact-based whims. (And it’s telling that the parents who are now refusing to vaccinate their kids have never actually experienced these diseases themselves, thanks to — you guessed it– vaccines.) Our state’s laws have led Texas to the edge of a dangerous precipice. Our legislators must act to protect our children and make vaccines mandatory, before it is too late.