Use Your Voice to Protect Our Community Through Life-Saving Vaccines

For the last 200 years, vaccinations have been responsible for many global public health achievements, including the eradication of smallpox and significant reductions of other serious infections like polio and measles. Despite their undisputed effectiveness, “anti-vaccine” movements are quickly gaining momentum in the United States, including in our great State of Texas. In addition to growing misinformation, factors related to religious beliefs, personal freedoms and individualism have contributed to a rising numbers of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. In Bexar County, recent data by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), shows the percentage of students claiming nonmedical vaccine exemptions has more than doubled, from 0.32 percent in 2011 to 0.80 percent for the 2017-2018 school year, despite the fact that opting children out of vaccinations greatly increases the risk of preventable disease outbreaks.

My internship this past year with Methodist Healthcare Ministries allowed me the opportunity to study the history of vaccines, how effective they’ve been in eradicating deadly diseases, ones that I admit I’ve taken for granted, until now. I’m more aware of the detrimental consequences of vaccine exemptions, including what types of policy measures are being taken at the state and local level to address the recent outbreaks around the state.

Before 2003, parents were only able to opt out of vaccinations for their children for religious or medical exemptions. However, during the 2003 Legislative Session, House Bill 2292 expanded the exemption provision to include “reasons of conscience.” Texas is one of 18 states that allows exemptions due to personal, moral or other beliefs. Since the implementation of the HB 2292, more than 57,000 children in Texas have opted out of vaccines – representing a twentyfold increase in the past 15 years. Data show that unvaccinated children typically cluster, which poses a significant threat for outbreaks. According to the Public Library of Science PLOS Medicine Medical Journal, four counties in Texas – including Harris, Tarrant, Collin and Travis – are among the top 15 counties in the U.S. with the highest number of kindergarteners with nonmedical vaccine exemptions. This trend is worrisome not only for the safety of our children, but for our vulnerable populations. Medically fragile individuals, including infants and the elderly, are not able to receive vaccines, due to serious allergies or weakened immune systems and rely on what is known as “herd immunity,” the resistance to the spread of diseases due to a significant portion of the population being vaccinated, which protects them from being exposed to preventable diseases.

In September 2018, DSHS, the state agency responsible for vaccination efforts, released a report highlighting strategies to increase vaccine coverage levels at the state level. Their multifaceted approach for the improvement of vaccination levels includes providing free vaccines to the community, employing quality improvement efforts, performing educational outreach and engaging and collaborating with partners and stakeholders. Two programs that offer free vaccines to eligible children and adults include the Texas Vaccines for Children (TVFC) and the Adult Safety Net (ASN) program. Additionally, DSHS developed educational strategies such as Vaccine Education Online and “Every Dose Matters” in efforts to educate communities on the importance of immunizations. The state also collaborates with stakeholders through the Texas Immunization Stakeholder Working Group (TISWG) to identify local needs and successes. Going forward, DSHS will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of existing public health strategies and work to implement policies that increase vaccine coverage levels and reduce the prevalence of disease in Texas.

As part of its mission to influence public policy to improve access to care for all Texans, Methodist Healthcare Ministries partners with organizations, such as The Immunization Partnership, or TIP, to advocate for vaccination coverage and educate communities on the importance of immunizations. TIP aims to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases by developing and coordinating community resources through public and private partnerships. As part of Methodist Healthcare Ministries' policy work for the 86th Legislative Session, the organization and TIP are readying to defend protections in current law and ensure the exemption infrastructure is not weakened. A strong piece of this work includes the Parent’s Right to Know legislation that would allow parents to be informed of exemption rates at their local school campuses. Right now, all schools are required to gather data on vaccinations and exceptions, but DSHS aggregates and releases the data at the district level. The Parents Right to Know legislation would allow the data to be shared at the local school level and allow parents to make timely decisions as the safety and wellness of their children.

This internship experience with Methodist Healthcare Miniistries has helped me become a stronger vocal public health advocate and I strongly urge the community to learn about the benefits of vaccinating our families to prevent diseases, disabilities and cancer. Vaccinations protect our public’s health by preventing outbreaks and resurgence of diseases that have not been around in many years. I challenge you to be an advocate for promoting the importance of routine immunizations and to join me in not only protecting our loved ones, but entire communities.