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Percentage of unvaccinated Denton County students inches upward

More unvaccinated children are roaming the halls of Denton County schools this year, causing some health experts to warn about potential disease outbreaks.

All children who attend public or private schools in the state are required to stay current on seven vaccines. But because of a 2003 law, parents can sign an affidavit refusing vaccinations for "reasons of conscience."

According to numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the rate of conscientious exemption waivers in Denton County rose from 2.05 percent of the student population during the 2015-16 school year to 2.92 percent in 2016-17. Denton County is now seventh in the state with the highest percentage of exempted students, up from its No. 10 spot the previous year.

"I think it's sad," said Glenna Harris, a local pediatrician and former Denton school board member. "We live in a community with two universities and a two-year college. People's failure to be able to assess data and facts instead of their own world-view is sad."

Experts in the medical community agree that vaccines are safe, effective and a public health necessity. The development of the polio vaccine in 1955 essentially eradicated the disease in the United States. The chickenpox vaccine was introduced 40 years later, and documented cases of the disease in Denton County have declined from 74 cases in 2012 to 49 in 2016, according to county health data.

Some parents began refusing vaccinations for their children after British scientist Andrew Wakefield published a study in 1998 that claimed vaccines could be linked to autism. The study was widely debunked, and Wakefield later lost his medical license. Other parents believe that typical vaccination schedules can overwhelm the bodies of young children and cause developmental issues. 

Jackie Schlegel, executive director for the Keller-based Texans for Vaccine Choice, said the vaccination debate in Texas isn't about the science behind it. It's about parents' right to make medical decisions for their children.

"It's a slippery slope when we start to allow the government to make medical decisions," Schlegel said. "What I'm worried about as a parent is waking up tomorrow and living in a state like California where they've taken the role of parenting out of the hands of the parent."

California saw a measles outbreak originate at Disneyland in 2015. Afterward, a new law killed the state's "personal belief" exemption. As a result, vaccination rates shot up.

Because of the way disease spreads, epidemiologists say the number of people vaccinated needs to reach a "critical mass" in order to be most effective. The concept — known as herd immunity — can stop the spread of disease and protect those who can't be vaccinated due to age or medical reasons.

Each disease has its own threshold, or the minimum percentage of immune people a community needs to stop an outbreak. For example, measles and whooping cough microbes can't spread effectively if 94 percent of the population is vaccinated. 

This year, three local private schools and one charter school network have exemption waivers for more than 6 percent of their student populations: Coram Deo Academy, Denton Calvary Academy, Liberty Christian School and Responsive Ed Solutions. 

According to a report on KTVT-TV (Channel 11), eight Denton ISD campuses have exemption rates of more than 5 percent: all four comprehensive high schools, Denton, Ryan, Braswell and Guyer; and Newton Rayzor, Savannah, Adkins and Wilson elementary schools.

"In some communities, the rate of measles vaccinations is approaching that threshold," Harris said.

Schlegel said the exemption numbers provided by the state health department don't paint a full picture of the situation. 

The data shows students with at least one exemption for a vaccine, meaning they could have every other required vaccination. Schlegel also said she's heard of families using the forms because their child is on a delayed vaccination schedule.

KTVT got individual campus vaccination numbers through an open records request, while the state health department publicly releases only districtwide numbers. That was up for debate this legislative session with House Bill 2249, sometimes called the "parents' right to know bill."

Though the legislation died during the session, it would have required each school's exemption rate to be posted on the Texas Education Agency website. Advocates of the bill said it would help parents whose children can't be vaccinated for medical reasons make an informed decision.

Schlegel disagrees.

"If we really want to protect medically fragile children, we would put out numbers of how many kids actually have the disease," she said. "It's not useful to me to know how many kids aren't vaccinated on campus. It is useful to me to know when there's an outbreak so I can keep my child home from school."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

In the Know

As vaccine exemption rates rise across Denton County, the number of certain infectious disease cases follows suit. Check out how exemption rates from several local schools compare to county health data on diseases vaccines can prevent:

Conscientious Exemption Rates

School 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Argyle ISD 2.15% 2.48% 3.11% 2.78% 3.63%
Aubrey ISD 2.46% 2.64% 3.50% 3.66% 3.94%
Coram Deo Academy 10.94% 12.44% 13.15% 13.67% 14.87%
Denton ISD 1.4% 1.7% 1.69% 1.84% 2.04%
Denton Calvary Academy 14.11% n/a 8.65% n/a 7.46%
Immaculate Conception School 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Krum ISD 1.87% 2.49% 2.84% 2.30% 2.37%
Lake Dallas ISD 1.22% 1.37% 1.30% 1.41% 1.75%
Liberty Christian 5.28% 5.63% 6.38% 7.63% 6.90%
Pilot Point ISD 0.34% 0.66% 1.11% 1.35% 0.93%
Ponder ISD 1.34% 1.65% 2.08% 2.51% 2.54%
Responsive Ed Solutions 3.41% 0.62% 3.77% 3.84% 9.82%
Sanger ISD 1.31% 1.62% 2.00% 0.96% 1.87%
Selwyn School 1.77% 5.38% 3.37% 4.40% n/a
Denton County 3.50% 4.07% 2.07% 2.05% 2.92%

Infectious Disease Cases in Denton County

Disease 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Whooping cough 148 320 102 78 68
Measles 0 7 0 0 0
Mumps 1 0 0 1 8
Hepatitis A 5 1 2 10 3
Hepatitis B 6 3 2 6 6
Chickenpox 74 70 64 51 49