Led by long-discredited studies, increasing number of parents opting not to vaccinate their kids is making conditions ripe for infection

Newly released numbers from the Texas State Health Department show that up to 57,000 children have parents who have opted out of having them vaccinated ahead of the imminent school year. The trend comes on the heels of a separate study showing Austin – along with Fort Worth, Houston and Plano – among the cities where more than 400 kindergarten-aged children aren't vaccinated:

Houston emerges as one of the hot spots. According to the Public Library of Science's Medicine medical journal, from 2016 to 2017 parents of 592 kindergartners in Harris County opted out of vaccination. The upshot: Harris County ranks 7th among the worst 15 counties in the country for non-vaccinated kids.

Yet Austin has no room for bragging rights in terms of overall vaccination. A 2016 study published by JAMA and conducted by researchers at Emory University listed Austin as being among the nation's metropolitan areas where more than 400 kindergarten students weren't vaccinated.

Vaccination refusals don't just potentially lead to measles outbreaks, but a whole host of maladies including whooping cough. The latter study showed Texas to be among the dozen states showing an uptick in exemptions, along with Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Missouri, Washington and Wisconsin.

The study isolated 15 metropolitan areas by state where 400-plus, kindergarten-aged children aren't vaccinated, in which Austin made an appearance: Arizona-Phoenix; Utah-Provo, Salt Lake City; Washington-Seattle, Spokane; Oregon-Portland; Michigan-Detroit, Troy, Warren; Texas-Houston, Fort Worth, Plano, Austin; Pennsylvania-Pittsburgh; and Missouri-Kansas City.

The Public Library of Science journal, Medicine, study found 12 of 18 states that allow exemptions to vaccines for religious or philosophical reasons have shown a marked increase in the number of kindergarten-age children enrolled in school with so-called "non-medical exemptions" since 2009.

Despite being safe and potentially life-saving, vaccinations are increasingly viewed by some as nefarious. Much of that suspicion has its roots in a 20-year-old study incorrectly linking vaccinations to autism. Though published, the study was widely and quickly discredited along with a retraction from the issuer.

But the damage was done. The dire conclusions of the long-discredited study took root in many parents' minds, the aversion to vaccinations exacerbated in an age where conspiracy theories about government entities swirl in creating parallel realities unencumbered by the tactics of factually soundness.

It hasn't helped matters that high-profile celebrities – Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jenna Elfman, Alicia Silverstone, Charlie Sheen, Kirstie Alley and others – have promoted the vaccinations-autism link. Closer to home in nearby San Antonio, former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood publicly launched his anti-vaccination crusade on his official Facebook page, where he advocated for parents' rights in deciding not to immunize their children against diseases.

"I have received nothing but judgmental and hypocritical criticism for my opinion," LaHood said at the time, adding that he had "done (his) own research" while telling others that "you have no science that supports your position and please don't reference that false CDC study."

LaHood didn't limit his then-prominent voice to his Facebook page in demonizing vaccinations. He videotaped a statement from his county office for use in the anti-vaccine film “Vaxxed,” during which he asserted that vaccines "can and do cause autism." He repeated the claims in testimony to a Texas House committee.

While it's unclear what role his anti-vaccination may have played, LaHood lost his bid for a second term as San Antonio's top law enforcement official in the Democratic primary that same year. He was thrashed by defense lawyer Joe Gonzales, who secured a whopping 60 percent of the vote.

Such prominent anti-vaccination voices have led in recent years to the emergence of multiple outbreaks of measles -- once considered eliminated by the CDC in 2000.

The trend has prompted a legion of medical professionals to discredit such voices while urging parents to have their children immunized.

"As larger un-vaccinated populations grow, particularly in highly mobile cities, the potential for vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks grows," said Peter Hotez, professor at Baylor College of Medicine and co-editor-in-chief of PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, and Melissa Nolan, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of South Carolina, in a joint statement.

Hotez is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. He shares concern over the increasing numbers of exemptions – a two-fold increase in vaccine exemptions in Texas since 2003.

Patch.com is a news partner of the Tribune Newspapers.

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