Updated data on conscientious vaccine exemptions to inform Texas 2019 session

The Texas Department of State Health Services released several legislative reports that will inform policy discussions during the legislative session that starts in January 2019. Two of those reports involve vaccines and conscientious vaccine exemptions, a contentious topic in previous sessions.

One report shows that the number of conscientious exemptions from vaccine requirements in Texas increased by almost 19 percent between September 2017 and August 2018, consistent with an ongoing upward trend.

“Over the past five years, Texas has seen a steady rise in conscientious exemptions from vaccine requirements,” the report states.

That rise has notably accelerated in the last two yearly reports. Between 2014 and 2015, the number of conscientious exemptions increased by only 0.5 percent. The following year, it increased by 5.2 percent. Between 2016 and 2017, it rose 23.6 percent.


image: Texas DSHS


The Texas legislature passed the provision that allows students and parents of minor students to apply for exemptions from required vaccinations “for reasons of conscience, including a religious belief” in 2003. To receive a conscience-related exemption, parents or guardians (or of-age students) request, fill in, and submit an affidavit form; DSHS processes and returns the request; then, it needs to be signed, notarized, and given to the school or child-care facility.

If the process is successful, the student can attend their school or child-care facility without receiving their recommended, age-appropriate vaccinations for the next two years. Though they can still be excluded from school if there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease.

These conscientious exemptions are given in addition to exemptions for medical reasons.

The other vaccine-related legislative report from DSHS gives a broader overview of the department’s efforts to increase vaccination rates and prevent vaccine-preventable diseases.

Its data shows that rates of all vaccinations for Texas children 19-35 months old were nearly on-par with the rest of the country, as of 2016. The same was true of two vaccines regularly recommended to adolescents, Tdap and MenACWY. Rates of Texas adolescents who had received the suggested HPV vaccine were about 10 percent below the national average.

The same report notes that current numbers bring the percentage of Texas students with a conscientious exemption on-file to 1.07 percent.

In 2013, Texas experienced its highest annual count of Measles cases in 20 years. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently monitoring Texas alongside other states that have reported Measles cases this year.

“The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated,” the CDC’s website reads.

Cases of Pertussis, or whooping cough, and Mumps in Texas have also risen in recent years.

During the 2017 legislative session, a bill that would have yielded more transparent reports on vaccine exemptions and vaccine-preventable disease rates was stalled.  

Texans for Vaccine Choice, a politically active anti-vaccination group, declared that session a victory.

“In summary, through strategic consulting, legislator mentorship, movement partnerships with existing organizations such as Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life, Texas Home School Coalition and Texas Values, Texans for Vaccine Choice is proud of the overwhelmingly successful outcome of the 85th Session,” a page on the group’s blog reads.

The group recently campaigned against Rep. Jason Villalba, who filed a bill in 2015 to eliminate conscientious exemptions. Villalba ran for re-election this year and lost his primary race to a pro-vaccine choice candidate.

Conscientious exemptions are sure to be a hot topic again in the 2019 session. The Texas Observer reported in 2017 that J.D. Sheffield, who wrote the bill centered on transparency, plans to file the bill again.