Texas eyes immunizations as more kids file exemptions

FILE - Vaccine (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Vaccine (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (AP/KXAN) — Texas could host the nation’s next major fight over stricter requirements for immunizations as its rates of schoolchildren who refuse to get shots for non-medical reasons rises.

The number of Texas kindergarten through 12th grade students who reported filing conscientious exemptions for at least one immunization last school year increased 19-fold since 2003. It’s still less than 1 percent of enrolled students.

In response to reports that approximately 45,000 students opted out last year, a 9 percent increase from the previous school year, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, is pushing for required education for parents before they can be signed off to opt out their children from receiving vaccinations.

“People need to understand that vaccinations are safe and that they’ve truly have had a huge impact on preventing disease and death,” Rep. Howard told KXAN on Wednesday. “That’s again another common sense way to make sure that parents are given all the information they need to make an informed decision. This is simply about improving the health care of Texans and preventing preventable diseases.”

Howard, along with some other state lawmakers said they want to create a system where students who object to immunizations would have to opt out. Currently, Texas makes parents “opt in” by approving vaccines.

Many health care officials worry the rise in non-medical exemptions will result in lower vaccination rates and leave Texas communities vulnerable to disease outbreaks. “Almost half of all students are absent due to acute illnesses like flu, which are immunizable illnesses,” said Susan Dawson, the president of E3 Alliance.

Dawson says this year in Central Texas, E3 will have given nearly 50,000 flu vaccines to students at no cost to families or to school districts.

“It’s so important for students to stay healthy and in school, and immunizations can help students stay healthy and help them not infect their family members,” added Dawson.

E3 supports Howard’s legislation: “We firmly believe that the more students who are immunized, the healthier our students and families are going to be. So, any legislation that helps students and families understand the medical benefits of vaccinations is a win for our community.”

Shelly Troberman-Miller, shown with her three unvaccinated children. (Family Photo)
Shelly Troberman-Miller, shown with her three unvaccinated children. (Family Photo)

However, not all Austin-area parents support Howard’s proposed legislation. Shelly Troberman-Miller has three unvaccinated children. She said she chose not to vaccinate them from the beginning, after extensive research and a careful analysis of family history and experience regarding vaccine injury.

For Troberman-Miller, the vaccination debate comes down to parental choice.

“I think that parents have a right to make the decision. It’s a complicated topic,” she said. “All families are different. All family histories are different.”

Troberman-Miller says it’s not lawmakers’ place to enter in to medical decisions.

“It just feels like a whole lot of involvement at the state level in parents’ medical decisions and we think that that’s ridiculous,” she said. “Parents are in a position to do a really good job and make sound decisions.”

Her decision not to vaccinate her children was not made lightly, she says. “I have put more hours of research into this issue than I’ve put into anything in my entire life. As a mother, health decisions are the most important decisions that we make in our entire lives for our children. Most of us would protect our children from literally everything on the planet, if it was within our controls.”

Troberman-Miller says she is the first to seek medical care for her children when they are ill and that she participates in regular well-child visits for all three of her kids.

“Texans for Vaccine Choice has people that fully vaccinate, that partially vaccinate, or that don’t at all, and if you are even opting out of one vaccine, even that alone requires you to use a belief exemption,” said Troberman-Miller. “[Say] you just don’t want the flu shot for your child that you think is kind of immunologically weak. Now you’re utilizing an exemption that could be taken away from you.” She says the group will fight Howard’s legislation this upcoming session.

Texas and 17 states allow philosophical exemptions to vaccines. California used to allow many students to forgo vaccinations, only to approve some of the country’s strictest vaccine requirements last year.

The Immunization Project, a Texas non-profit organization, also released recommendations to improve vaccination rates. According to the organization, it aims to eradicate vaccine preventable diseases by educating the community, advocating evidence-based public policy and promoting immunization best practices.

To learn more information about Texans for Vaccine Choice, visit their website.