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Some School Districts See An Uptick In Unvaccinated Children

School starts for most Texas children this month. Immunization clinics are full of parents taking their children to get shots. But last year almost 45,000 students in Texas schools had non-medical exemptions. Health officials are concerned.

Javier Salazar (R.N.): Just exercise your arm. You’re going to be ok. I’m going to do three on the right and one on the left. [repeats what he says in Spanish ]

Nurse Javier Salazar is giving 15- year-old Binnei Posada her vaccines at the Metro Health Immunization Clinic so she can go to school in America for the first time. She just moved to San Antonio from Mexico. Her Uncle Lasarus Posada is with her at the clinic.

Uncle: The way I see it, it’s important because less risk to anybody else and for her.

Texas public schools require 11 different vaccinations, including Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis. You can get an exception, however, if you have a medical or reason of conscience exemption.

Lisa Owen is a mother of three. She’s not taking her children to the immunization clinic. Paige, who’s 12, and Jackson, who’s eight, both have autism. She says when Paige was first diagnosed, the doctors said her autism was severe.

Owens: They basically told us we were going to have to institutionalize her, that we were never going to get anything out of her, she was never going to communicate, wasn’t going to hug us, love us, talk to us, anything. And she’s done exactly what they said she couldn’t do.

Owens says she believes the progress happened because of early intervention, routines, schedules, things like that. And because she had a pediatrician who advised Lisa stop vaccinating her autistic children. Owens says the pediatrician couldn’t be sure that the vaccines wouldn’t make the symptoms worse.

Owens: I think our children do already have some sort of autism and the severity doesn’t happen until we start injecting them with it. I truly believe that by stopping the vaccinations, it’s improved my children because they stopped regressing. I’ve talked to parents who continue to vaccinate, and their children continue to regress. I really do believe that that does more damage than good.

Now Owens doesn’t vaccinate any of her kids. She says her children are the only ones in Edgewood ISD who aren’t vaccinated. But in other districts a lot more kids aren’t vaccinated. In North East ISD about 660 students filed for non-medical exemptions last school year.

Credit Louisa Jonas / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Anil Mangla

Anil Mangla is the Assistant Director of Health for San Antonio.  

Mangla: Kids are vectors for disease. Right? They touch anything and everything and they walk around. And more important, they’re in schools which means they’re in crowds. So if you’re in a crowd, the possibility of getting infected is very easy. Now with many of the parents taking these exemptions, we have a problem. And the problem is these kids that are not vaccinated are at very high risk of getting the disease.

Mangla says vaccines have eradicated smallpox, diphtheria, measles, mumps in the United States, but because of the large amount of international travel, these diseases are coming back.

Mangla says if a student comes to school with a communicable disease which vaccinations might stop from spreading, the health department’s epidemiology team investigates the school.

Mangla: And we will identify all the kids that may have been exposed, including teachers. The next step is we will identify who is fully vaccinated and who is not. If an individual is not vaccinated and will not want to get vaccinated, then the next step is for them to stay home for 21 days for that incubation period to pass. This includes teacher.

Mangla says depending on how big the outbreak is, the school may to close.

For those who believe they should have the right not to vaccinate their children, a major concern is that vaccinations might cause autism. Mangla blames a single study for that perception.

Mangla: It was rigged in some way with the data. The data was incomplete. Some of the studies were not performed correctly. And the key thing with that study was it could not be replicated.

Texas schools have seen a steady rise in non-medical vaccine exemptions for over a decade. Texas is one of eighteen states that allows these in public schools. Louisa Jonas. Texas Public Radio News.

Louisa Jonas is an independent public radio producer, environmental writer, and radio production teacher based in Baltimore. She is thrilled to have been a PRX STEM Story Project recipient for which she produced a piece about periodical cicadas. Her work includes documentaries about spawning horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds aired on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Louisa previously worked as the podcast producer at WYPR 88.1FM in Baltimore. There she created and produced two documentary podcast series: Natural Maryland and Ascending: Baltimore School for the Arts. The Nature Conservancy selected her documentaries for their podcast Nature Stories. She has also produced for the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Distillations Podcast. Louisa is editor of the book Backyard Carolina: Two Decades of Public Radio Commentary. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her training also includes journalism fellowships from the Science Literacy Project and the Knight Digital Media Center, both in Berkeley, CA. Most recently she received a journalism fellowship through Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she traveled to Toolik Field Station in Arctic Alaska to study climate change. In addition to her work as an independent producer, she teaches radio production classes at Howard Community College to a great group of budding journalists. She has worked as an environmental educator and canoe instructor but has yet to convince a great blue heron to squawk for her microphone…she remains undeterred.