The XX Factor

Private School Parents Are Keeping Austin Weird—and Unsafe—by Not Vaccinating Their Kids

A pediatrician gives an HPV vaccination to a 13-year-old girl on September 21, 2011 in Miami, Florida. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Cool free-thinkers in Texas are doing their part to “keep Austin weird” by promoting conditions that could lead to deadly outbreaks of funky retro diseases. As Kaiser Health News reports, public health officials in Texas are increasingly concerned about growing clusters of unvaccinated children in the state. There are several such clusters in the state capital, where vaccine exemption rates in some areas top 20 percent. At the Austin Waldorf School, tuition is more than $13,000 a year and more than 40 percent of the students are not fully vaccinated.

To prevent outbreaks of diseases like measles, the threshold for “herd immunity” is a 95 percent vaccination rate. The statewide rate in Texas remains high, at a comfortable 98 percent. But Kaiser reports that public health officials are worried about pockets where the rates are much, much lower. The problem is worst in wealthy, highly educated communities. In Austin, for example, the exemption rate in public schools is 2 percent, but at many private schools it’s more than 20 percent. At one private school in East Texas, almost 38 percent of the students are unvaccinated.

A professor in the department of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Peter Hotez, called the trend in Texas “extremely troubling” in a commentary last month in the online scientific journal PLOS. Hotez laid part of the blame on an Austin-based PAC called Texans for Vaccine Choice, which describes itself as “dedicated to protecting vaccine choice rights.” The group’s website leads parents through the steps of the exemption process, and it featured heavily in the recent anti-vaccine propaganda film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. The film’s director was Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British doctor whose fraudulent research on the supposed connection between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly debunked. Wakefield apparently now lives in—surprise!—Austin, Texas, USA.

This is not just a story about a few wrong-thinking private-school parents. In 2003, Texas had 2,314 “conscientious exemptions.” This year, the number is 44,716. It is one of 18 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for reasons other than medical necessity or religious beliefs. (The others include Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.) California famously banned such “philosophical exemptions” last year after a 2014 measles outbreak that started at Disneyland and launched a national debate about whether parents should be allowed to opt out of vaccinating their children. Some parents in Texas are now pressing state officials to release the vaccination rates at individual public schools, numbers that are currently only available for districts as a whole.

Vaccination matters for the unprotected kids themselves, whose parents’ whimsical belief systems make them vulnerable to a wide range of non-whimsical diseases. But it also matters to other people in the community whose compromised immune systems mean they cannot receive vaccinations even if they want them. It’s worth repeating this over and over: Choosing not to vaccinate your children risks the lives of infants, the elderly, and cancer patients in your community.

In just a few months, a vaccine skeptic will move into the White House. Donald Trump has a long history of connecting vaccines to autism; he is more fluent in the issue than he is on, say, foreign policy. In a primary debate in California last year in September, he sparred with Ben Carson over the debunked connection to autism. “[W]e’ve had so many instances, people that work for me,” he said to an audience of 23 million people watching on CNN. “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” The story echoes an account Trump gave in 2012 on Fox & Friends, in which he told the same “recent” story. In a 2014 tweetstorm on the issue, he argued that “tiny children are not horses.” (I’ll admit that he’s technically right about that.)

Vaccine skepticism knows no party, and the issue scrambles the usual political and ideological alliances. Trump earned only 27 percent of the votes in Austin’s Travis County last week. But plenty of the city’s educated and wealthy citizens seem to agree with their president-elect on the dangers of vaccines. Maybe that’s one way to change minds within the communities of urbanites who so often fall for irrational vaccine hysteria: Are you on Donald Trump’s side, or not?