"It's so frustrating because I can see this train coming two miles down the tracks," said Dr. Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "And I can't do much to stop it other than just try to talk about vaccines, why they're safe, why the evidence shows there's clearly no link between vaccines and autism."
Hotez’s research has showed big clusters of exemptions in the western part of the country and in pockets where parents have slightly more wealth and education. His study showed Texas had the most “hot spots” of kindergartners whose parents, for nonmedical reasons, kept them from getting vaccinations against diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox and whooping cough.
Texas is among 18 states that let families opt out of vaccines for personal or moral beliefs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And Plano, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston all ranked among the 15 U.S. metro areas with the most such conscientious exemptions for kindergartners. Each had more than 400 kindergartners exempted from vaccines.
Conscientious objections have risen steadily in the state over the past five years and now top 1 percent for the first time in recent years. Texas reported that 56,738 students — from kindergarten to 12th grade — opted out last school year. That’s an increase of almost 4,000 students from the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.
Hotez, who is the father of an autistic daughter, is most concerned about how exemption hot spots can put more people at risk for outbreaks of childhood infections. He said people tend to look at national and statewide rates and say, "They're not that alarming."
But those numbers, he said, “mask pockets in these schools.”