Via Science, a worrying report by Kai Kupferschmidt: Why Texas is becoming a major antivaccine battlefield. Excerpt:
Peter Hotez used to worry mostly about vaccines for children in far-away places. An infectious diseases researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, Hotez is developing shots against diseases in poorer countries such as hookworm and schistosomiasis.
But now, Hotez is anxious about children much closer to home. The number of schoolchildren not vaccinated against childhood diseases in Texas is growing rapidly, which means that the state may see its first measles outbreaks in the winter or spring of 2018, Hotez predicted in a recent article in PLOS Medicine. Disgraced antivaccine physician Andrew Wakefield has set up shop in the Texan capital, Austin, and a political action committee (PAC) is putting pressure on legislators facing a slew of vaccine-related bills.
"Texas is now the center of the antivaxxer movement,” Hotez says. “There is a big fight coming,” adds Anna Dragsbaek of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Houston that advocates for vaccinations.
Texas still has one of the highest vaccination rates for childhood diseases overall, 97.4%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the number of children not vaccinated because of their parents' “personal beliefs”—as opposed to medical reasons—has risen from 2300 in 2003, when such exemptions were introduced, to more than 44,000 so far this year, according to numbers prepared by The Immunization Partnership based on Texas Department of State Health Services data.
The actual number may be much higher because an estimated 300,000 Texan children are schooled at home, says Susan Wootton, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Texas in Houston; though the law requires these kids to be immunized too, parents don't need to submit proof of vaccination.
Measles is an extremely contagious pathogen and often the first one to spread when vaccination rates dip below about 95%. The risk of outbreaks is even greater because unvaccinated children aren't randomly distributed. In Gaines county in western Texas, for instance, the exemption rate is already 4.8%, and at one school in Austin, it's 40%. "I would describe Texas as sitting on a ticking time bomb," Wootton says.
Not everyone is so gloomy. Some counties in Washington and Colorado have higher levels of exemptions, says immunologist Diane Griffin of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “I don’t think that Texas is any worse than a number of other states, but pointing out the problem and the solution is important,” she wrote in an email.
But Hotez believes the situation in the Lone Star State is more perilous. One factor is the arrival of Wakefield, widely seen as the father of the modern antivaccine movement. Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet in 1998 that alleged a link between the MMR vaccine (which combines shots against measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism. Several large studies have failed to find the link, Wakefield's paper was retracted in 2010, and he was disbarred as a physician after the U.K. General Medical Council found him guilty of dishonesty and endangering children.
Wakefield has appeared at screenings of his film Vaxxed, released in April, all over Texas and has testified at many city councils, Dragsbaek says. “He is definitely a major influencer.”